Thomas Kemper of Germany Is New Chief Executive of United Methodist Mission Agency

January 20, 2010

By Elliott Wright*

New York, NY - A former missionary in Brazil, who has strong United Methodist roots in his native Germany and broad ecumenical and international experience, has been chosen as the new chief executive of the denomination's General Board of Global Ministries, an agency of worldwide scope.
Thomas Kemper, 53, a layman, will assume the new position of general secretary on March 15. He has led the Board of Missions and International Church Cooperation of the United Methodist Germany Central Conference since 1998. He also is in his second four-year term as a director of Global Ministries, a 190 year-old organization with personnel, projects, and mission partners in 136 countries. He is the first general secretary of a United Methodist general agency who is from outside the United States.
"Thomas Kemper is uniquely qualified and gifted for this position," said Bishop Bruce R. Ough of West Ohio, president of Global Ministries and co-chair of a search committee that presented Kemper's name to the agency's executive committee. "His global perspective, missionary experience, sound Wesleyan theology, broad ecumenical involvement, and passion for Christ's mission will benefit the General Board of Global Ministries and the entire United Methodist Church as we advance our commitment to be a truly global movement."
The Global Ministries' executive committee elected Kemper on January 13, having been authorized last October to act on behalf of the board, which does not meet again until April 2010. The vote by telephone conference call took place in an atmosphere that included prayer for the organization and for the people of Haiti in the wake of a devastating earthquake. Even as the committee met, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), a unit of the mission agency, was organizing emergency relief assistance for Haiti.
"We celebrate the election of a Central Conference member to head one of our 13 general agencies," Bishop Ough said. "We anticipate the value this will add to the many mission partnerships that currently exist between United States conferences and the rest of our world-wide church." Central Conferences outside the United States, comparable to jurisdictions within the U.S., are organic units of the denomination.
Kemper considers it imperative for the mission agency to hold mercy and piety together and to "help local churches around the globe to feel and see themselves as part of a worldwide family, and to overcome the boundaries of culture, race, and denomination in the name of Jesus Christ." He said that he profoundly believes that "the gospel can transform individuals and the world."
The new general secretary will succeed Bishop Joel N. Martinez (retired), who took over the executive position on an interim basis last September, at the resignation for health reasons of the Rev. Edward W. Paup, who had served for a single year.
Kemper has traveled extensively, done field work in Africa, worked with Vietnamese boat people in England, and can communicate in five languages.
"Thomas Kemper lives the true Wesleyan values of personal and social holiness and is an inspiring person," said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany. "He reminds us of our Methodist identity: we are a mission movement, combining evangelism and social work. We will miss Thomas Kemper in Germany, and at the same time we are proud to send him to serve as the first general secretary of a United Methodist board from a Central Conference. It is the right time for the General Board of Global Mission to make this step toward more inclusiveness in our collaborative ministry of making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We need mutual support in living a vital partnership in mission."
Bishop Wenner said that the engagement of the German church's three annual conferences in worldwide mission "increased tremendously" under Kemper's leadership.
Lifetime Involvement in Mission
"My interest in the Christian mission began in my childhood," Kemper said in an interview. "Missionaries would visit the Hamburg congregation where my father was pastor and my mother was involved in the women's mission society. I was excited and challenged by the differing cultural perspectives they represented within our shared faith and Wesleyan heritage."
Kemper and his wife, Barbara Hüfner-Kemper, spent eight years (1986-1994) as missionaries in Brazil through the German United Methodist Board of Missions. For six of those years, he taught in the Brazilian Theological Seminary in Sao Paulo and also engaged in ministry with the poor and new church development. The Kempers have three children, Ana, 18, Lena, 17, and Joshua, 13.
A bright spot in his reflections on Brazil is the work he did with Roman Catholic sisters in ministry with the homeless, including the organizing of worship in the streets.
Earlier, he spent almost two years in London working with the German Methodist Mission and with Vietnamese boat people. Kemper speaks fluent German, English, and Portuguese and is competent in French and Spanish.
"My desire to become involved in the international ministry of the church grew in my young adult years," he explained. "It was greatly strengthened in 1976 at a World Methodist Council youth event in Dublin, where I learned why we as Methodists so strongly believe that personal and social holiness hold together. My roommate was from the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He was white and able to get an exit visa from South Africa, but his friend, who was black, was refused exit. I began to see what it means to struggle for the sake of faith."
Mission Going Forward
Kemper is looking ahead to United Methodist mission in a connectional network as he assumes the leadership of Global Ministries. He believes that his background in a Central Conference outside the U.S. will be helpful in engaging annual conferences in the international nature and scope of mission.
He has high regard for the value of missionaries in facilitating and interpreting mission in the 21st century. He has both a practical and theological view of the four focus areas around which The United Methodist Church is now organizing much of its ministry. The four areas stress new congregations, leadership development, ministry with the poor, and global health. Kemper is enthusiastic about each of these.
"The General Board of Global Ministries has engaged in each for decades," he said in the interview. "They grow out of the goals of mission, are rooted in the Bible, and affect people in all kinds of societies and situations." Kemper would like to put more emphasis on the biblical and theological bases for the focus areas. For example, with regard to health, he would like to focus more on "wholeness and the value of healing," and less on what he calls "technocratic" approaches.
Global Ministries has particular responsibility for ministry with the poor. Kemper has special interests in the ways in which micro-credit and fair trade can contribute to a reduction of poverty around the world. Micro-credit makes small loans available to persons who might not otherwise qualify for loans. Fair trade builds equitable exchange patterns between small producers and consumers.
Kemper said he thinks that Global Ministries can make valuable contributions to all of the focus areas by continuing its commitments to its traditional goals, such as making disciples for Jesus Christ, strengthening congregations, combating racism, seeking peace, providing humanitarian relief, and building strong ecumenical relations. A major role of the mission agency, he said, is to "enable and facilitate mission wherever it is already happening."
Kemper earned a Master of Education in adult education at the University of Hamburg in 1982. His thesis topic was "Global Learning in Church Youth Work." Three years later, he received a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Bielefeld, where his preparation for a thesis in the field of ecology included three months of field work in Burkina Faso in the Sahel area of Africa.
Ecumenical and Denominational Roles
Methodist connectional and ecumenical relations are important to Kemper. After returning to Germany from Brazil in 1994, he worked for six months for the German Board of Mission. Although Methodist, he was offered the post of director for ecumenical learning of the Lippe regional organization of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), an association of Lutheran and Reformed churches. He continued in that role until he joined the staff of the United Methodist Germany Central Conference in Wuppertal in 1998.
During 11 years in the German mission office, he worked closely with the resident bishops in promoting mission partnerships and supervising the missionaries sent and received by the Central Conference. As the mission executive, Kemper had a leadership role in establishing new mission partnerships with annual conferences and mission initiatives in Albania, Eurasia, Malawi, and Namibia; introducing new mission fund-raising methods; and starting a Volunteers in Mission program.
From 1999 to 2009, he was secretary of the European Commission on Mission, a coordinating unit for the continental churches of The United Methodist Church and the British and Irish Methodist mission agencies. He held offices in German ecumenical organizations, including the Protestant Development Service (EED), Bread for the World, and the Association of Protestant Missions. He co-founded the Protestant-Catholic Latin American Commission.
*Elliott Wright is an author and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries.