The United Methodist Church plans to have five new bishops in Africa starting in 2021. The question remains where to put them.
"You can say everywhere is underserved, in a sense," said Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who leads the Ohio West Area. "But there are some areas that are more underserved than others where we need to fan the flames."
At a recent meeting in Côte d'Ivoire, Palmer and other members of the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters outlined their criteria in determining the location of the five new episcopal areas. They also made clear: No decisions have been made at this point.
Central conferences are seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. There are currently three central conferences on the African continent.
The legislation calls on the standing committee to "implement a collaborative comprehensive plan on numbers and boundaries of central conferences and episcopal areas in Africa."
The subcommittee will make recommendations to the standing committee based on its findings. The standing committee, in turn, will use that information in making its recommendations to the 2020 General Conference, which has final say on the number of central conferences and the number of bishops each elects.
The team also will look at the percentage of United Methodists compared to a nation's population as a whole, he added. The African Comprehensive Plan members are using data reported to the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration.
Still, he said, statistics will not be the only the driving factors the team will examine. The group also will consider information from a consultation last year with African church leaders in Harare, Zimbabwe and a second consultation this August in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
"What we plan to do is take the data we have — and the data we will acquire over time — to Freetown and have the African delegates who are there help us interpret this data," Postell said.
Bishop Mande Muyombo, who leads the North Katanga Episcopal Area in the Democratic Republic of Congo, urged the subcommittee to examine qualitative as well as quantitative data.
"You may have the numbers, but you may not be vital," the bishop cautioned.
Palmer assured Mande that the subcommittee would send questions ahead of the Sierra Leone consultation aimed at trying to get that missional perspective.
"We have raw data," Palmer said. "Now we're moving toward the stage of seeing what is the missional potential of particular areas, keeping in mind it is not possible to send a bishop everywhere we think the church could grow. The General Conference has put a cap of five."
Heather Hahn, multimedia news reporter for UMNS
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