God Is Coming Toward Us
Address to Board of Directors
I. Introduction and Appreciations
Bishop Ough, other officers, directors, staff, missionaries, and friends; good morning, and grace and peace be with each of us this day.
I am so happy to be here. Thank you for the service of welcome. It has filled me with joy and hope, given me a sense of our ability as the General Board of Global Ministries to move forward with confidence in the work of God's mission in the 21st century.
This morning, in my first address to you as general secretary, I want to do three things.
First, "thank you"--thanks to you, the directors, and your various committees, which are responsible for me being here. Thank you, Bishop Ough and Dr. Maggie Jackson, chair of the personnel committee. Both of you have worked long hours, not only in regard to the general secretary's position but in the search process for deputy general secretaries. I know the hours have been long because I have been with you in the deputy interviews.
My gratitude also to Bishop Joel Martinez, Roland Fernandes, and other cabinet members, who ably for the transition and are now with me in the work. We gave thanks for Bishop Martinez' commitment to Christian mission and to this board last night. Roland Fernandes is a gift of heaven to this organization and to a new general secretary. Thank you Roland! Thanks also to board staff and missionaries, other general secretaries, many bishops, and friends around the world who have welcomed me and, further, have made commitments to work with me, and with us, in a spirit of collaboration for the common goals of mission. I feel your support, I feel your prayers.
I say "thank you" to my family for accompanying me in the process of applying for and accepting the general secretary's position. We have made the decisions together, and while our two daughters are in Germany I am so pleased that my wife, Barbara, and my son Joschua are with me today. We look forward to establishing our home in the New York area in the summer.
II. Who Am I?
Second, I want to give you a sense of the German layman, Thomas Kemper, whom you have elected to lead this mission organization deeper into a new century. You may have read my resume, but now I want to begin to put flesh on that skeleton, to unfold in at least introductory ways my faith journey and my mission dreams, and I look forward to learning of yours. You have a right to know me, for you have taken a risk in selecting someone from outside the United States as general secretary. This is the first such action by a United Methodist general agency. A part of that risk is that in electing a general secretary from a central conference you are affirming that United Methodism is worldwide, not just a US denomination, and that GBGM is not a US agency but the mission agency of a Global Church. And I am sure I will keep reminding you of that fact. My addresses and reports to you in the future will likely be more reportorial and programmatic, but I believe here at the outset, a personal witness--a testimony--is in order.
1. Biblical Watchwords
In order to reveal something of myself to you, I need to begin with one of my spiritual practices. This is the use of the daily biblical "watchwords" from the Moravian Church. For 280 years, an annual schedule, or textbook, of the watchwords has been published; it is a kind of lectionary, with daily verses drawn from the Old and New Testaments. It originated in the town of Herrenhut in eastern Germany. The Moravian watchwords are widely used for ecumenical prayer, not only in Germany but around the world. I was once in the room where the watchwords have been drawn for the last 280 years from 1,800 preselected Old Testament verses--and then the committee adds verses from the New Testament in line with the Old. Sitting next to me was Sam Kobia, the former general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Sam, a Methodist from Kenya, was deeply moved by the story of the watchwords and the accounts of the prayers for guidance that go into the yearly textbook preparation.
That Sam and I, two Methodists from different parts of the world, should draw strength from Moravian practice is hardly surprising. So did John Wesley! Wesley, you will recall, encountered Moravians on the ship returning him to England from what he considered the failure of his missionary work in Georgia. Wesley's sense of spiritual discipline fit well with that of Moravian piety. He would stay in touch with the Moravians--in England and Germany, and notably, it was at one of their services in Aldersgate Street where, on May 24, 1738, his heart was "strangely warmed." The warmth, or perhaps, the fire, of Aldersgate led directly to the Methodist revival.
The watchwords fill me with biblical thoughts and also give me a sense of continuity with our Protestant and Wesleyan heritages. The texts for today, April 13, 2010, are fitting for the work that brings us together here: from Psalm 86:9: "All the nations you have made will come and worship before you, O Lord. They will come they will bring glory to your name," and 1st Corinthians 9:16: "Yet when I preach the gospel I can not boast for I am compelled to preach; woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" I need not elaborate on what God is telling us, a mission agency, in these watchwords, and we can apply their insights in our deliberations on mission theology and strategy in the months ahead.
2. Growth in Faith
I was born into a German Methodist family and grew up in a German Methodist parsonage. That has specific implications for my social and theological formation. Germany, as you know, has large Roman Catholic and Protestant populations, with most of the Protestants organized today into regional churches composed of those of both Lutheran and Reformed traditions. The national umbrella organization is called the Evangelical Church in Germany and its 25 million members make up 30 percent of Germany's total population.
Methodists in Germany form a tiny minority religious community outside of the official structures. That could have been a problem for a young boy, but it was not because being a Methodist meant that my family and the congregations that my father, Gustav, pastored were part of a global connection. Missionaries visited our church and stayed in our home as they itinerated. My mother, Elfriede, was a delegate from Methodist Women to the central conference Board of Mission. My father took me with him to a Roma congregation in Hamburg when he preached there. This was one of my first experiences of another culture, frightening and fascinating at the same time. They had an enthusiastic way of singing and the freedom to touch and embrace. We also had regular evangelistic campaigns in our church and at one of them, held in a classical mission tent, I felt the very personal call to follow Jesus Christ. This call was nurtured through the Methodist youth group and student prayer groups. Out of my church youth fellowship, six persons would go on to study theology and become pastors; for me, it was clear that I wanted to do church work but not as clergy.
3. A Youthful Kairos Moment
After my secondary schooling, on the basis of conscience, I declined military service and, as is possible in Germany, did my civil service with the German Methodist Mission in London in the mid-1970s. This further opened my eyes to worldwide Methodism and to our role in the ecumenical world. I remember feeling so proud that Philip Potter, a Methodist from the Caribbean, was then general secretary of the World Council of Churches. I admired his struggle with many churches, including the churches in Germany, over the Program to Combat Racism. I came to know the Methodist Church of Britain and its involvement in public and social action following the Wesleyan principle to hold together works of mercy and piety.
A highlight, a kind of kairos moment, occurred in those years when I attended, as a youth delegate, the World Methodist Conference and Council meetings in Dublin. That was in 1976. I shared a room with Derek Kotze, one of the youth secretaries of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He was white and had a black counterpart who had been denied a visa to travel to Dublin. Every night Derek prayed for his friends and for his country caught up in the struggle over apartheid. It was a time when students in Soweto were rising against the regime. Derek prayed every night, and every morning, as we went to the conference sessions, he stopped by the newsstand for fresh information on events in South Africa. Derek's piety and political commitment strongly marked my life, and solidarity with the anti-apartheid and other movements for social and political justice became a part of who I am.
After those experiences, it was kind of natural for me to seek a career in international mission and church work. Back in Germany, at Marburg University, I took part in an evangelical ecumenical student church, but also attended a local Methodist congregation, and I was active in an anti-apartheid group that met at the student church. Imagine my surprise when the organization opposing apartheid was told it could no longer use student church space because it was "too political" and "not truly Christian." That was the only time I have been thrown out of a church. I drew from that harsh experience a lesson I carry still: It is better for Christians to agree to disagree than it is to create divisions that drive people out of the church. God's grace, God's mission, is stronger than our differences.
4. Service as a Missionary
Let me move on to the eight years that Barbara and I spent as missionaries in Brazil and where our two daughters were born. Between being thrown out of church in Marburg in the late 1970s and beginning missionary training in 1985, I had studied at the Universities of Hamburg and Bielefeld and done field work in the African country of Burkina Faso, doing a preparatory semester in Paris. I had also married my life's partner in family and faith.
Brief comments cannot do justice to the importance of missionary service in my faith journey. Rather than attempt to survey the whole of our experience in Brazil, I will highlight two aspects that run through those years, many of which were spent in a seminary environment, along with significant involvement in urban ministry, especially among street people in São Paulo.
I had been aware of the living power of the Bible in and for everyday life, but this experience of the relevance of Scripture was underscored and broadened in Brazil. I had heard of "liberation theology" and read the works of some of its proponents--such as Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff--before going to Brazil, but I had no idea of its real importance; I did not grasp that liberation theology is not primarily a systematic theology but is about reading the Bible as and in a community and, notably, from the perspective of the poor. I learned the importance of reading the Bible in light of everyday living. This awareness was perhaps less revolutionary to a Methodist than to Latin American Roman Catholics, but it was deeply instructive in a context of the poverty we encountered in São Paulo.
Related to my existential experience with liberation theology and the poor was my growing appreciation of ecumenical mission. In the street ministry, which included not only social service but also street worship, my partners were Roman Catholic sisters. We engaged in worship, including shared Holy Communion, under bridges in the center of the huge city, and marched with the homeless. One of my favorite slogans was "Entre a vida e a morte, a vida e mais forte" ("Between life and death, life is stronger").
As I experienced the Bible, both testaments speaking so directly to the poor, I struggled with the question, "What is Good News to the rich?" "What is good news for me?" The story in the book of Exodus of the mid-wives--Shiphrah and Puah--who saved Moses' life, thereby becoming instruments of the Israelites' later liberation, became highly relevant to me. I came to understand that there are roles for all in God's mission--the poor, the rich, and those in between, for we are all invited to celebrate God's forgiving, liberating grace and to participate in God's mission.
5. Local and Global Experience
Back in Germany, I worked for well over three years as director of mission education and ecumenical learning for one of the regional EKD churches, the Church of Lippe. This gave me a unique opportunity to share my experience in Brazil on local and regional levels, and I could work with both church leadership and the people in the pew. Many of the people in the pews were surprised, and pleased, when I asked them to read the Bible or pray or share their faith publicly. The time in Lippe gave me the chance to put local churches on the wider mission map, and also to learn how grassroots Christians keep faith and social commitments linked, to grasp how they think about mission.
In 1998, I moved back into the United Methodist context as secretary of the Board of Mission and International Church Cooperation of the Germany Central Conference. Over the 11 years I served in that role, I experienced the vast diversity of mission opportunities and needs within our connection. I came to know our mission partners in many parts of the world as well as the operational styles and goals of our United Methodist general agencies. I learned about this agency, especially in the earlier quadrennium when I was a director. The experiences of these years gave me reason to be convinced that the Christian Gospel can transform individuals and societies. I saw the "Missio Dei" at work, and know it is present here in Stamford as we look to the future, make decisions about governance, engage in strategic planning, and put our mission theology into practice in order to be better partners in God's mission.
III. Thinking About Mission Priorities
You have no doubt picked up on some of my mission commitments in this very swift biographical survey. Let me specifically mention some of those, because they point to what I see as priority issues as we move ahead. Now I am at the third part of my remarks. This will be brief today, but I hope to elaborate on the various issues and themes one by one in my next reports.
1. Focus Areas
I am strongly committed to the four United Methodist focus areas. I believe in active evangelism, church growth, effective leadership training, ministry with the poor, and the promotion of health for all. We continue to explore these areas at each of our directors' meetings and will continue to look at ways to increase our role in each, particularly in ministry with the poor. I believe these focus areas give us contexts in which to make real our Wesleyan commitment to do mercy, love justice, and walk humbly with our God--the Prophet Micah's way of saying to keep piety and social ministry connected.
Our responsibilities to the focus areas offer reminders of our need to develop new ways and means of eliciting mission support. The Advance continues to serve us well, but we must expand and diversify our fund-raising efforts. Toward that end, we are moving ahead in forming the Development and Communications Unit, as proposed by the operational audit you have approved.
Perhaps the most challenging fiscal task ahead at this moment is to develop and negotiate around the denominational quadrennial budget for 2013-2016. I have already been engaged in discussions at the General Secretaries Table around the process. I have also volunteered to be on a task force of general secretaries and two bishops to look at the structure of the general church and come back to the Table with suggestions. Internally, we are working on refining our goals for next quadrennium. As we have become so reliant on the World Service Fund for our budget, we will strive to get the share of World Service we need to accomplish the tasks ahead of us. However, we are also clear, based on initial projections, that the amount of World Service for next quadrennium will be less than the current one; whether our share is significantly altered or not, we need, as I have just said, to look at alternative sources of funding. A significant amount of time over the next few months will be spent shaping and defining the 2013-2016 quadrennial budget.
2. Connectional/Collaborative Mission
I am strongly committed to a United Methodist mission culture that is spiritually connected and operationally collaborative. One of our Global Ministries' mottos is "connecting the church in mission." We need to better practice this axiom. Our agency cannot itself, all alone, DO all the mission work that God is calling United Methodists to do. We are called to better connect and cooperate with the mission energy that vibrates within annual and central conferences; congregations, large and small; schools and colleges; hospitals; and ethnic, racial, geographical, and social networks. We need to become expert in facilitation, passionate for partnership, and open to the mission visions of our partners.
To achieve this goal may require shifts in our Global Ministries culture. I would hold up the roundtable approach we have practiced in the German mission board and other places over the last years. The model brings to the table all of those who are in partnership with a certain conference or country in order to share the work, set priorities together, and achieve as much transparency and accountability as possible. One example was the Mozambique Roundtable we held last year under the leadership of Bishops Nhanala and Wenner and with the presence of conferences in the US and Europe and general agencies. Yesterday, we heard from the Roundtable we plan to hold in Haiti in a few days, which involves partners well beyond the Methodist family. Our mission agency is important in facilitating mission, in connecting the church in mission, and we will spell out what this means in the future, for instance through regional GBGM offices.
We already have numerous structures for collaboration upon which we can build. United Methodist Women, the Volunteers in Mission networks, and the Mission Initiatives are three that come quickly to mind. Let me take this opportunity to affirm each of these essential components of our work. I am aware of some concerns around the initiatives in the context of the operational audit. I want to say categorically, and this repeats remarks contained in a recent board press release, that the 13 mission initiatives, and others that may emerge in the future, are in no way endangered. They are critical elements in the pursuit of the goals of mission. Let us celebrate that we were able to start 106 new churches just in the last year and are well on the way to reach our goal of 400 new churches in this quadrennium as one of our contributions to the focus area on church development.
Our connections include the other general agencies, and these need to be refreshed and strengthened. Already in my short tenure, I have been in conversations with other general secretaries about our shared visions in relation to the focus areas and other mission links. It is my personal commitment to do all within my ability to build open, trusting relations with the other agencies, and to smooth over any of the bumpy roads of the recent past.
3. Mission Theology and Strategic Planning
I am strongly committed to vital, Wesleyan mission theology that becomes the foundation for our strategic mission plans. We are giving major attention to these concerns at this meeting. The articulation of mission theology and the formation of strategic plans are the responsibilities of directors, acting within the mandates of The Book of Discipline and with reference to the goals of mission emerging from those mandates.
Our theology, our understanding of God, shapes our work and our plans to accomplish that work. Our mission is to participate in God's mission--"Missio Dei." We are part of the movement of God's love toward all human beings--toward all creation. The common ground for the various dimensions of mission is God's love in Jesus Christ. God's love and righteousness is the model for our message of personal salvation, our example of social justice, and our experience of community--koinonia. We preach love because God is love; we act justly because God is just. We engage in healing because Jesus healed. We grow the church because it is the body of Christ in the world.
Our United Methodist mission statement is: "Making Disciples of Christ for the Transformation of the World." This is a wonderful expression because it puts us into the stream of God's loving action. The transforming power belongs to God and as the disciples we seek standing in God's image, not in ours. That is a message that we in the northern hemisphere are still struggling to learn. We are not in mission to make American or German Methodists in Senegal or Mongolia or Honduras. We are in mission to witness to what God has done and is doing, and to learn from what God is doing in every land where disciples gather in the name of Jesus Christ.
I will be saying much more about the implications of "Missio Dei" at a later time, and also about strategic planning in light of awareness of God's mission. In terms of planning, our consideration of the operation audit points us in important directions, and I want to say that I am committed to the overall results of the audit and the operational development process it describes. And we will take concrete steps here on how to continue with the implementation of it all.
I am strongly committed to an international, ethnically diverse community of effective, well-trained, and well-supported missionaries, assigned in collaboration with mission partners around the world. I have said this in a letter I sent in my second week in office to all our active and retired missionaries. Missionaries are essential in the accomplishment not only of our four GBGM goals of mission but also of the four focus areas we have laid out as a denomination. My thoughts on missionary recruitment, training, and placement will be fed into our program-building process. For a variety of reasons, patterns of service are different in the 21st century than in the 19th or 20th, but the need for professional mission service and the need for the church to self-consciously send and underwrite missionaries, this need has not changed. Missionaries incarnate the universal of the church, sharing their faith in foreign lands and bringing their new experiences back to where they came from, thereby, transforming themselves, the church, and, we hope, the world.
In the near future, we need to work on a clear understanding of what it means to be a missionary and how a person becomes one: what are missionary ethics, outlooks, and self-understandings? These questions have implications for our preparation and accompaniment of mission personnel. Being a missionary is not "just another job."
5. Ecumenical Mission
I am strongly committed to ecumenical mission. I have seen it work miracles. A century ago this year, the Protestant denominations of Europe and North America sent representatives to Edinburgh, Scotland, where more than 1,000 people took part in the World Missionary Conference. They made commitments to work together to evangelize the world for Christ. They put it in urgent terms. The anniversary of Edinburgh is being observed in a variety of ways this year, and we at Global Ministries are significantly involved. Edinburgh 1910 is significantly referenced in Joy to the World, one of our new mission study resources written by Professor Dana Robert of Boston University, one of the keynote speakers at Edinburgh 2010. The Women's Division has done a great service to the church in publishing this book which, I am sure, will have broad and lasting value.
A major question that we need to raise as we look back is why the ecumenical commitment--the urgency of Edinburgh 1910--did not bear more fruit. Yes, it provided momentum for the formation of the World Council of Churches, but it stopped far short of what was envisioned a hundred years ago. Some of the reasons for a falling away from the goals came in the shape of two world wars, a global economic depression, and a prolonged East-West "cold war."
There are, of course, bright lights of advocacy for ecumenical mission and one such person is Lois Dauway, who among other things is chair of the program committee of the World Council of Churches. I want to take this opportunity to thank her not only for her ecumenical leadership but also for serving in recent months as our interim deputy general secretary for mission and evangelism. Lois has made an invaluable contribution to the future witness and operation of this agency. She has a rare capacity to practice fairness and justice on the job. She embodies administrative wisdom and, may I say, is remarkably calm in a crisis. Her years with the Women's Division and in the ecumenical arena equipped her to effectively launch our new Mission and Evangelism unit that combines so many former program areas. Thank you, Lois, thank you, and will you join me in an expression of appreciation to her?
In closing, I want to reach back to an incident that has become a chapter in the faith journey of every German I know: November 9, 1989, the day the wall came down. We were in Brazil, but the drama of that transformation carried across the oceans. You know the daily watchword from the Moravians for that day? Isaiah 9:2, "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness--on them light has shined."
I had very close relations with Christians, especially Methodists, in East Germany from 1975. I visited there at least twice a year in that period, also speaking in churches about my "overseas" experiences. I knew that the churches were the only independent organizations in the country and had social relevance far beyond their liturgies and sanctuaries. It was beyond the sanctuaries that East German Christians were a fundamental part of the movement that brought down the wall between east and west. One communist leader said with great insight, "We were prepared for everything, but not for candles and prayers."
I believe in the power of candles and prayer! I believe that Christians can change the world.
Today, I end with a song closely associated with the breaching of the wall. We have sung it once already today, as we concluded the welcoming service, but I want to repeat it, and ask you to join in. "Have faith in God who leads you," the English title, was written in the summer of 1989 by Professor Klaus-Peter Hertzsch as a wedding song for one of his godchildren. It is set to the music of an old traditional German hymn of Pentecost. Not many people realize its origins today because it came to be associated with the day the wall came down, emerging as a kind of Christian folk hymn for a unified Germany.
If you read and reflect on the words, I think the song reflects the present situation of the General Board of Global Ministries: "Have faith in God who leads you…have faith in God's new pathways…have faith in God who shows us…the door for us is open…." It has become my personal hymn in these last weeks of transition, giving me courage and trust in moments where the many personal and organizational demands of a fast and radical transition sometimes became overwhelming. The words are a kind of candle to me:
Can we stand and again sing this hymn of faith and hope, of trust and confidence? Can we sing it with a sense of personal commitment and organizational intention? Can we sing with a determination to join our inward faith with outward social and political engagement so as to change all lands? Can we sing in the belief that God is coming toward us and that a new day is upon us?
Let us sing.
Date posted: Apr 13, 2010