Today’s piece is written by Dr. Glory E. Dharmaraj, a consultant for United Methodist Women. It is the first of a three-part series. Dr. Dharmaraj contributed this piece as part of our reflections on the WCC’s new document on mission and evangelism, Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes. You can find more posts in this series by clicking on the “Together towards Life” tag at the bottom.
“Transformative Spirituality” is one of the key concepts in the new ecumenical affirmation on mission and evangelism by the World Council of Churches, Together Towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Times. In this series of articles, I would like to share how I have adapted and applied this concept as a pedagogical practice in facilitating the annual United Methodist mission studies.[i] I begin this week with a history of mission studies as a site for transformative struggle and learning.
Story of mission studies
The story of mission studies, originating as an ecumenical women’s venture, has found its parochial home now in the United Methodist Women. The ecumenical roots of the current mission studies go back to the Central Committee on United Study in 1900. Beginning in 1901, the committee published a mission study annually for the use of women interested in mission in the local churches.[ii] Ecumenical Schools of Christian Mission, with an emphasis on the preparation for teaching, began in 1904, thanks to the efforts of the Federation of Woman’s Board of Foreign Missions. The Federation and the Council of Women for Home Missions started a National School for the training of trainers in the spring for two weeks for the summer schools of mission.[iii]
As with all the women’s mission boards, due to overall structural changes and mergers, the work of the annual mission studies came to be housed within the Federal Council of Churches, and its later version, the National Council of Churches in the U.S., till 1999. With the disbanding of the Friendship Press which published the annual mission studies, the ecumenical endeavor became a United Methodist shared endeavor by the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries and GBGM. In 2006, the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries took on the major responsibility for the work. The story of mission studies is a story of survival, though it may look like a regressive journey, seen through ecumenical eyes.
However, in the educational pedagogy used by the United Methodist Women, critical analysis plays a key role: a legacy of ecumenical learning. Critical analysis is conceived by Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, and serves as an educational concept “aimed at freeing the parochial mentality from its limitations and at participation and change.”[iv]
Struggles and Sites
A transformative learning experience which precedes the use of critical analysis is the collective resistance of Methodist women in the teaching of mission studies in the wake of the creation of the Central Jurisdiction in 1939. This Central Jurisdiction was created as a segregated structure for the black Methodists during the unification of the Methodist Church, South and North. While five of the jurisdictions across the U.S. were geographically structured, the sixth one was racially based exclusively for black Methodists.
This was a challenge to the teaching of mission studies. The Methodist women leadership insisted that the then Schools of Christian Mission be held on a regional basis and not on a racially segregated jurisdictional basis. Hence the Regional Schools of Christian Mission (emphasis mine) were conducted in five places subverting the segregated structure of the larger Church.[v]
Until 2012, the Regional Schools of Christian Mission were held in the five geographically divided regions, long after the Central Jurisdiction was abolished in 1968. The name, Regional Schools of Mission, however, remains in memory as an act of subversion of and resistance to the unjust structure imposed on the African American Methodist members. Now due to strategic investment of time and personnel, the regional level training is offered in three places across the country, with a name change Mission u, while keeping the component of “how-to-teach” as a core component. The Mission educational settings for the mission studies are often known as university without walls.