By Thomas Lambrecht –
The polarization of The United Methodist Church in the United States is now unfortunately surfacing in the part of the church located in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – one of at least 17 countries on the continent of Africa to host United Methodist churches. There are 3 million United Methodists in DRC – the largest contingent of Methodism outside the United States.
At last count, there were roughly 6.6 million United Methodists in North America, 5.9 million in Africa, and 200,000 in the Philippines and Europe.
Actions have been taken by two of the four bishops and annual conference boards in the Congo to penalize pastors and lay leaders who are working to promote faithfulness to traditional doctrines and moral teachings. These penalizing actions were taken contrary to the processes required by our Book of Discipline and violated the rights of the persons penalized. Complaints have been filed against the church authorities for these improper actions, but so far, the complaints have been either ignored or no remedy has been provided.
UM Church in the Congo
The primary languages of United Methodists in Congo are French and Kiswahili, which often presents a challenge in communicating with their English-speaking brothers and sisters. In addition, DRC is the same size as the U.S. east of the Mississippi, but with less than 1,000 miles of paved roads, an indicator of the extreme poverty of the country, which naturally affects the church and its ministry there.
The Congo Central Conference has four bishops: Bishop Gabriel Unda (Eastern Congo), Bishop Kasap Owan (Southern Congo and Zambia), Bishop Daniel Lunge (Central Congo), and Bishop Mande Muyombo (North Katanga). Bishop Unda was elected in 2013 and is the president of the Congo College of Bishops. The other three bishops were elected in 2017.
Bishop Kasap is the only bishop of the four who has declared his strong support for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and for the traditionalist position on church doctrine and teachings on marriage and sexuality. The other three bishops supported the “One Church Plan” at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis, urging their delegates not to vote for the “Traditional Plan” that eventually passed. Reports from delegates, however, indicate that delegations generally voted contrary to their bishops’ advice, which has engendered conflict both within and between the episcopal areas in the Congo.
This Perspective will address some of the actions occurring in Central Congo under Bishop Lunge.
Nicolas Munongo is a layperson in the West Congo Annual Conference of the Central Congo Episcopal Area who at one time served as a trusted assistant to Bishop Lunge. Because Munongo became aware of some allegations against Bishop Lunge that cannot be made public at this time, Bishop Lunge suspended Munongo as a church member and removed him from his position as assistant. Munongo had also attended a meeting where he heard about the Traditional Plan and became a supporter of that plan, which further angered Lunge and his supporters.
After the 2019 General Conference, Munongo continued to promote the traditional perspective among clergy and lay leaders in Central Congo. When Bishop Muyombo (North Katanga) visited Central Congo and told one of the pastors, Henriette Okele, not to associate with Bishop Kasap (Southern Congo and Zambia) and the conservatives, Munongo reported that information to Kasap. When Kasap confronted Muyombo, he became angry and complained to his ally, Bishop Lunge. Lunge instituted proceedings against Munongo, a layperson, by the West Congo Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. The Board held a hearing without any notice to Munongo and, in his absence, accused Munongo of making “defamatory, derogatory and insulting remarks” about Bishops Muyombo, Lunge, and Unda, designed to “create an unhealthy climate and lead to the division of the Central Conference of Congo and the College of Bishops.”
The Board of Ordained Ministry removed Munongo from his membership in the church as a layperson and forbade him “from performing any act in the name and on behalf of the East Congo Conference of the United Methodist Community in the Central Congo both inside and outside its bodies” and threatened legal action if Munongo failed to comply.
Apart from whether or not Munongo did anything wrong, there are many problems with how the bishop and annual conference handled this situation. First and foremost, neither the bishop nor the Board of Ordained Ministry has any authority to suspend or remove from membership a layperson. The only way a layperson can be penalized is through the complaint and trial process, which was not followed in this instance and over which the Board of Ordained Ministry has no jurisdiction. No formal complaint was filed against Munongo. No supervisory process was held. No trial was held. There was no attempt at a negotiated resolution of the problem. The bishop and annual conference violated Munongo’s rights as guaranteed by the Book of Discipline to fair process and trial. Instead, an arbitrary and punitive action is attempting to deprive Munongo of his membership in the church in an effort to discredit him due to his difference of opinion with the bishop over the Traditional Plan.
The Rev. Louis Loma Otshudi
The Rev. Louis Loma is a pastor in the West Congo Annual Conference. The Board of Ordained Ministry, without the filing of a written complaint, supervisory process, or trial, suspended him in October 2019. He was accused of “defaming” the bishop on social media (WhatsApp). (Loma had criticized Bishop Lunge for supporting the One Church Plan, advocating instead for the Traditional Plan.) Loma was also accused of being part of a “divisionist” group in Central Congo. (Loma identifies as a “conservative” in line with the current position of the Book of Discipline and spoke out against a group of progressive persons who came from the U.S. to meet with leaders in Central Congo.)
Again, regardless of whether Rev. Loma did anything wrong, the process of the Book of Discipline was not followed. There was no formal complaint filed against Loma. There was no supervisory response by the bishop, only a meeting by the Board of Ordained Ministry, of which no notice was given to Loma and no opportunity provided to Loma to rebut or present evidence. No trial was held. Under the Discipline, the Board of Ordained Ministry could only suspend Loma if a complaint was being processed, and then only for 90 to 120 days with pay. Instead, Loma has been suspended without pay for nearly nine months with no complaint or charges being filed. Loma has no recourse in this situation, since a trial was never held and therefore, he cannot appeal the decision. (Additionally, no appeal would have been possible because the Congo Central Conference has elected no central conference committee on appeals.) The Board of Ordained Ministry has violated Loma’s fair process and constitutional rights guaranteed by the Book of Discipline.
The Rev. Henriette Okele
The Rev. Henriette Okele is a pastor in the East Congo Annual Conference. On April 2, the Board of Ordained Ministry suspended her because she attended a meeting of African leaders in Johannesburg, South Africa. The meeting was sponsored by the Africa Initiative, a group formed by African leaders to equip and promote the voice of African United Methodists within the larger denomination. The purpose of the meeting was to explain the provisions of the “Protocol” and its implementing legislation regarding the possible separation of the church and to hear the feedback from African leaders regarding the “Protocol.” (The African Initiative issued a statement following the meeting endorsing the “Protocol” and urging several amendments to it.)
Because Okele attended the meeting without the permission of her superintendent and bishop, and because the meeting “was accompanied by resolutions tending to the division of the United Methodist Church,” she was suspended. The letter of suspension further said that her suspension was “without appeal.”
There is nothing in the Discipline that allows bishops or superintendents to forbid clergy from attending meetings of church leaders for the purpose of understanding issues and proposals coming before the church. This claim of power by Bishop Lunge and other African bishops is an attempt to keep their people uninformed about what is happening in the church. By controlling all the information that is reaching their people, the bishops hope to control what the African church decides to do in response to the actions of General Conference.
Again, the process with Okele violated every aspect of the Discipline’s requirements. No formal complaint was filed against her. There was no supervisory process or attempt to negotiate a just resolution. No trial was held. The Board of Ordained Ministry did not have the authority to suspend Okele at all, let alone without pay. It cannot deprive her of the right of trial and appeal, which is guaranteed by the Restrictive Rules of our church Constitution.
Because of all the violations of fair process and constitutional rights, Munongo, Loma, and Okele appealed to Bishop Lunge to reverse the decisions and require the Boards of Ordained Ministry to handle the situation according to the requirements of the Discipline. Bishop Lunge ignored their appeal.
Therefore, Munongo filed a complaint against the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry for disobedience to the order and discipline of the church. Bishop Lunge ignored his complaint and declined to process it, refusing even to meet with him and instructing his aides not to allow him in the conference office or to receive any mail from him.
Finally, Munongo filed a complaint against Bishop Lunge for disobedience to the order and discipline of the church for failing to process his previous complaint. The complaint against Lunge went to Bishop Unda as the president of the Congo College of Bishops. In response to the complaint, Bishop Unda met with Munongo, Loma, and Okele and suggested that they should apologize to Bishop Lunge and ask forgiveness. Since they had done nothing wrong, they declined to apologize. Bishop Unda at that point refused to process the complaint, saying that he could not “interfere” in the affairs of another annual conference.
We have heard this line of reasoning from other bishops, who are unwilling to hold a fellow bishop accountable because it would be considered “interference.” Such reasoning is completely contrary to the Wesleyan and Methodist understanding of mutual accountability. It creates an Anglican or Roman Catholic idea of “diocesan bishops,” where each bishop is essentially a law unto themselves in their own diocese. In contrast, United Methodist bishops are general superintendents, having oversight of the whole church, not just their particular annual conference. In Methodism, bishops, clergy, and laity are supposed to be accountable to each other, for the sake of growing in holiness and for the good of the whole church.
We have also seen other instances where a college of bishops refuses to prosecute a complaint against a fellow bishop. It has happened in Africa before and in the Western Jurisdiction. This failure of accountability gives the appearance of episcopal dictatorship and the variations of practices from one annual conference to another that makes the United Methodist identity virtually meaningless.
The practical result of this lack of accountability is the victimization of pastors and laity who dare to think or speak differently than their bishop in some annual conferences. The heavy-handedness and distortions of the truth end up victimizing the whole church. When the Book of Discipline is no longer followed, we are no longer living in a faithful church, but in a church that is subject to the whims and proclivities of its leaders.
These three individuals in the Central Congo episcopal area have no recourse for the injustice that has been done to them. They are deprived of position and livelihood without due process and in violation of their rights as clergy and lay members of the church. The last hope is that the Council of Bishops would step in and intervene in the complaint against Bishop Lunge. But given the reluctance of bishops to “interfere” with a fellow bishop, that kind of intervention is unlikely.
It is this type of violation of the Discipline and the lack of accountability that is causing the separation of The United Methodist Church. The story told in this Perspective is but one example of the kind of malaise that has afflicted our church. When accountability becomes impossible, the only solution is to start over. A new traditional Methodist church will have a more robust accountability mechanism for bishops at the global level. Bishops will be expected to follow the Discipline or face accountability. Those unwilling to live by the Discipline of the church will be unable to align with that new denomination.
Our denominational identity should mean something. Without accountability, we have no identity as a church. If we stand for anything, we end up standing for nothing. If the plan of separation passes the next General Conference, we will have the opportunity to choose what we will stand for.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.