By Linda Bloom
The world was a “fragile” place when the Rev. George Freeman assumed staff leadership of the World Methodist Council a decade ago.
Less than two months after his election during the 2001 World Methodist Conference in Brighton, England, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania suddenly made it difficult for church members to obtain visas and travel internationally. The unstable financial market had an impact on the council’s budget.
“The fragile nature of the whole world and the fear that 9/11 put into people was also very painful,” he recalls.
Today, as Freeman, a 64-year-old pastor from the United Methodist Virginia Annual Conference, prepares to retire, the council’s 74 members, representing more than 132 countries, have strengthened their bonds and are looking to the future.
United Methodist Bishop William Hutchinson, who is completing a five-year term in the council’s presidium, believes Freeman has given “exceptional leadership” to the council.
“He has traveled tirelessly, he has led with a strong theological grounding, he has led with great openness to all communions of the Wesleyan family,” said the bishop, who leads the denomination’s Louisiana Area.
Nominated to succeed Freeman in the general secretary position is the Rev. Ivan M. Abrahams, most recently the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, which covers six countries, including South Africa.
The election of Abrahams, the first top executive for the council to be selected from outside the United States, will take place just before the Aug. 4-8 World Methodist Conference meeting in Durban, South Africa.
Social justice issues. The council has increasingly addressed “hot-button social issues” during recent years and Freeman credits Abrahams, his nominated successor, for that emphasis.
Abrahams has served as co-chair of the council’s social and international affairs committee for the past decade. “He brings a strong South African social consciousness to this office,” Freeman added. “The people called Methodist want to weigh in on those kinds of issues and concerns.”
Such action is necessary, the South African leader believes. “The most basic challenge for Methodists anywhere in the world is to speak of God’s enduring love in situations of economic deprivation, human suffering and the spiritual malaise which is a reality for most of the human population,” Abrahams said in his presentation to the council’s search team for Freeman’s replacement.
Hutchinson, who served on that team, said Abrahams has a “dynamic personality” and “very strong and a very steady presence” that will help the council expand its international influence.
The 2011 conference in Durban, under the theme “Jesus Christ—for the Healing of the Nations,” marks the council’s 20th world gathering. Although the venue was decided years earlier, Hutchinson called it a “wonderful coincidence” that the South African church will be present to celebrate the election of one of its own.
Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.