By Thomas Lambrecht
Last week's Perspective reported some troubling actions taken by the Board of Ordained Ministry in the West Congo Annual Conference, Central Congo Episcopal Area. Today's post reports on similar actions taken in the North Katanga Annual Conference.
There are 3 million United Methodists in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) -- the largest contingent of Methodism outside the United States. The North Katanga Annual Conference is the largest annual conference in United Methodism, with over 900,000 members. It is two and a half times the size of North Georgia, which is the largest membership conference in the U.S. 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. As in West Congo, the North Katanga Board of Ordained Ministry has taken action 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. The Rev. Ilunga Banza Ben The Rev. Ilunga Banza Ben is a clergy member of the North Katanga Conference. He was a General Conference delegate in 2012, 2016, and 2019, and was also elected for 2020. (His suspension less than three months before the scheduled meeting of the General Conference removed him from the delegation.) He had been serving as the liaison officer in Kinshasa (capitol city of the DRC), but had not been paid for over a year. When he asked to be paid, the conference paid him for 15 months' service, and then the bishop closed the liaison office in September 2019, leaving Banza Ben still appointed to Kinshasa but without salary. The Board of Ordained Ministry accused Banza Ben of "slander" and "defamation" because he made critical statements on social media (WhatsApp). His criticisms apparently included alleging that some leaders in North Katanga support the practice of homosexuality, that some pastors and leaders who came from other denominations into the UM Church were not adhering to United Methodist methods of decision-making, and that the election of bishops in 2017 in Congo was corrupt because some delegates allegedly received payments for their votes. Banza Ben also criticized the irregular convening of the special Central Conference meeting in December 2018, which retroactively granted life terms to the Bishops elected in March 2017. In February, based on these accusations, the Board suspended Banza Ben "from all ecclesiastical functions and activities, of representativeness in delegations, until he could come and explain himself to the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Annual Conference at the July 2020 session." Due to the pandemic, that session has been postponed, and Banza Ben remains on suspension without pay. Banza Ben was not informed of any complaints against him, he was not informed about the meeting of the Board of Ordained Ministry at which he was suspended, and therefore, he was not present to answer these accusations. The Board of Ordained Ministry has no authority to suspend a clergyperson. Only the bishop can suspend a clergyperson with pay while a complaint is being processed. The suspension can only last 90 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension (¶ 362.1d). Such suspension is not a punishment, but a way to protect both the pastor and the church. In this case, the Board suspended Banza Ben without pay as a punishment for his WhatsApp posts without a complaint or supervisory process and without a trial. Most importantly, Banza Ben was never notified about the accusations against him, nor did he have the opportunity to answer those accusations. In fact, Banza Ben found out about his suspension (and the accusations) by reading the unsigned minutes of the Board meeting posted by a person who is not United Methodist and not a member of the Board at an internet café. Not only is Banza Ben without salary, but he has been excluded from receiving any relief money from UMCOR through the annual conference for the Covid-19 pandemic. He supports a family of seven and has no other steady source of income. The Rev. Bishimba Kasongo The Rev. Louis Bishimba Kasongo is an evangelist and pastor in the North Katanga Annual Conference. He was a delegate to General Conference in 2012, 2016, and 2019, but was not elected to serve for 2020. Bishimba was accused of many of the same "offenses" as Banza Ben. He had leveled criticisms on social media (WhatsApp) against the bishop and other leaders of the North Katanga Conference. He alleged that there is confusion in the conference, with disagreement between the leaders and the rank-and-file pastors and members, that there are deficiencies in administration, that some leaders would tolerate the sin of homosexuality, and that some leaders were leading out of a selfish interest based on money. He further criticized the Board of Ordained Ministry for punitively suspending pastors when they have no right to do so. In response, the Board of Ordained Ministry stated its philosophy: "It is not for nothing that the Board of Ordained Ministry was established. [It] watches over the smooth running and functioning of the Church. When [it] notices a slippage, a failure, an indiscipline ... [it] intervenes to rectify the situation. Otherwise, [it] punishes and even suspends the person or persons concerned." This philosophy is contrary to the Book of Discipline, which does not give the Board of Ordained Ministry the authority to punish or suspend clergy members. The Board listed the accusations against Bishimba as follows: - "Writing on social networks is a serious breach, - Write comments that are discourteous, false, and defamatory, - Inciting members to hatred and contempt, slander, shows a lack of a sense of responsibility towards his Church." Whether or not there is any merit to the foregoing accusations, they were not handled as the Book of Discipline requires. No complaint was filed. Bishimba was given no notice about the meeting at which these accusations would be discussed. Bishimba had no opportunity to answer the accusations against him. There was no supervisory response or trial, to which Bishimba is entitled. There was no opportunity for an appeal. Bishimba found out about his suspension through a third party who is not even a United Methodist and not a member of the Board. As a consequence, the Board suspended Bishimba without pay from his position. In contrast to the suspension of Banza Ben, Bishimba's suspension is open-ended, with no opportunity envisioned for him to defend himself against the Board's accusation. Furthermore, Bishimba has also been forbidden to receive any money from the annual conference through UMCOR for Covid-19 relief. As a result, he has been hunting for food in the wild and picking up odd jobs to support himself and his family. Mr. Kasongo Kabange Kaba Mr. Kasongo Kabange Kaba is a layperson who is a candidate for ordained ministry. He had just finished his bachelor's degree at Africa University and had decided to study for his master's degree while continuing in the process toward ordination. The Board of Ordained Ministry accused Kaba of writing messages on social media that "are offensive and defamatory." Kaba criticized those in North Katanga he believed were supporting the practice of homosexuality. Kaba also wrote a letter to the Rev. Stan Copeland, pastor of Lover's Lane UMC in Dallas, clarifying that, when Bishop Mande Muyombo apologized to the LGBTQ community for the vote at the 2019 St. Louis General Conference reaffirming the traditional stance of the church, the bishop did not speak for all Africans (including Kaba). (The letter was later circulated widely by others among leaders and General Conference delegates in Africa.) In February, the Board "suspend[ed] him from all his activities and ask[ed] the Staff of Africa University to bring him back to the North Katanga Conference to provide ample information. He should never work or study with the recommendation of North Katanga." Again, Kaba was never informed of the accusations against him and was not given the opportunity to defend himself. The Board acted without having heard from Kaba. It has no authority to prohibit him from studying at Africa University. Subsequently, Africa University allowed Kaba to continue his studies, since he was admitted and had a private scholarship to study. No Recourse The three individuals appealed to the chair of the Board to follow the Discipline. They received no response. Bishop Muyombo immediately began implementing the suspensions, which caused the three to believe Bishop Muyombo would not intervene on their behalf. As a guarantor of the proper enforcement of the provisions of the Book of Discipline in his episcopal area, he should not have acted on the decisions taken illegally by the Board of Ordained Ministry, but referred the matter back to the Board. Therefore, Banza Ben, Kaba, and Bishimba filed a complaint with the President of the College of Bishops of the Congo Central Conference, Bishop Gabriel Unda, against the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry and Bishop Muyombo for disobedience to the order and discipline of the church. They received no response from either the chair or the bishop. On June 18, Bishop Unda notified Banza Ben, Bishimba, and Kaba that as President of the Congo Central Conference College of Bishops, he "had no competence to open or activate any lawsuit opposing a United Methodist Bishop." In addition to the violations of the Discipline process for handling accusations against clergypersons, the complaint alleges that the Board acted illegally because it was improperly composed. The chair and vice-chair were never elected by the annual conference to the Board and the vice-chair is not even a member of the North Katanga Annual Conference as required by the Discipline. The complaint further alleges the Board did not have a quorum to act at its February meeting as required by the Congo Book of Discipline. Therefore, the complaint alleges, the Board's actions were not only a violation of fair process requirements, but also improper due to the composition of the Board and the lack of a quorum. The Story Behind the Story The underlying issue behind the singling out of some pastors and laity for punishment has to do with the church's position regarding marriage and human sexuality. The African part of The United Methodist Church is overwhelmingly against condoning the practice of homosexuality in Africa. However, there is an emerging difference of opinion whether the African United Methodists can remain part of the global United Methodist Church if the denomination changes its stance to allow for that practice. Some leaders, including Bishops Muyombo, Lunge, and Unda, are personally against the practice of homosexuality in Africa. But they believe the African part of the church should stay united to the global denomination, even if same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals are allowed in the U.S. That is why Muyombo promoted the "One Church Plan" to his delegates at the 2019 General Conference. (Most of the delegates, however, voted instead for the "Traditional Plan" that passed the General Conference.) Both Banza Ben and Bishimba attended the 2019 General Conference as delegates, and Kaba attended as an observer. Bishop Muyombo was angry that the three promoted the Traditional Plan instead of the One Church Plan. Other African UM leaders believe that, if the American part of the UM Church allows the practice of homosexuality, the African part of the church should separate from the denomination and align with a new traditional Methodist denomination that would be formed under the proposed "Protocol for Separation." These leaders are working with traditionalist leaders in the U.S., Europe, and the Philippines to help prepare for a global traditional Methodist denomination, should the 2021 General Conference enact the Protocol. These are the leaders who are being punished by their bishops and annual conferences because of their disagreement. The Result As in the Central Congo situation, two of the three individuals in the North Katanga Conference 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 members of the church. The last hope is that the Council of Bishops would step in and intervene in the complaint against Bishop Muyombo and the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry. The three individuals involved in this situation have appealed to Bishop Harvey, president of the Council of Bishops, under ¶ 413.3d.ii.1 of the Book of Discipline to process the complaint against Bishop Muyumbo by appointing three bishops, one from each of three continents, to complete the supervisory response process for the complaint. Discipline ¶ 413.3d.iv allows the full Council of Bishops to take over responsibility of a complaint against a bishop upon a two-thirds vote. 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 another 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.
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