Leadership Change on Tap for World Methodists


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 recalled.

Today, as Freeman, a 64-year-old pastor from the United Methodist Virginia Annual (regional) 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.

A ‘Family’ Place

One of the purposes of the council, Freeman explained, “is to be that place where the (Wesleyan) family can come together for accountability, for mutual support, for affirming each other, for the sharing of resources.”

Mutual support is particularly important for churches in countries like Bangladesh, where Methodists are a tiny minority. “The small membership churches really enjoy being with the larger family because they feel a connection they don’t feel at home,” he said.

In the last decade, new members joining the council have included the Methodist Church in Colombia, Methodist Church of Bangladesh, Wesleyan Methodist Church in New Zealand and the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Australia. Becoming part of the council, Freeman added, “gives them a status and a recognition outside of their own boundaries.”

Technological changes over the past decade – from emails to cell phones to Skype -- have made communication easier with even the most remote members.

Beyond the Methodist/Wesleyan family, the council is known for its ongoing ecumenical dialogues with Roman Catholics, Anglicans and the Salvation Army. Dialogues with the Orthodox and Baptist World Alliance are expected to resume in the near future.

Such connections are significant, Freeman pointed out, “because it gives us a greater understanding and awareness and appreciation of each other and it helps strengthen the church all the way down to the grassroots level.”

During Freeman’s tenure, the council in 2002 moved into a new headquarters building at Lake Junaluska, N.C., and updated the world Methodist museum there, which holds the largest collection of Wesleyan memorabilia in the world. The new building is modeled after the Wesley family rectory.

Freeman is particularly pleased with last year’s renovation of the Susanna Wesley Garden at Lake Junaluska, which he called “a place of prayer and meditation and reflection” as well as a setting for marriage proposals, weddings and picnics.

The significance of the garden became even more apparent when a renovation of the chapel there revealed “prayers that people had written 30 years ago and put in the cracks of those walls,” he said.

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.

Having the conference in South Africa also “affords a timely opportunity to acknowledge the growth of the church in the global South, the struggles of national identity and independence the world over, and ongoing need for the church to practice the peace of God,” said the Rev. Joy J. Moore.

Moore, associate dean for Black Church Studies and Church Relations at Duke Divinity School, will lead the conference’s Bible study, which will begin with “the witness to the purposes of God’s social, political and religious community” found in the book of Micah and continue “threading the idea of social justice” from Genesis to Revelation.

“I hope to remind the delegates of the uniqueness of a Wesleyan approach to reading the Bible as Scripture that invites Christians to not only speak of peace and reconciliation but to practice justice even when it seems almost impossible,” she said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York.

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