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Mission agency head draws on global roots


2:00 P.M. EST March 29, 2010 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

Thomas Kemper speaks 
at a memorial service for the Revs. Sam Dixon and Clinton Rabb at 
Riverside Church in New York. A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.
Thomas Kemper speaks at a memorial service for the Revs. Sam Dixon and Clinton Rabb at Riverside Church in New York. A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.
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Through his United Methodist connections, Thomas Kemper is a citizen of the world.

His passport is German, but he spent two years managing a youth hostel and working with Vietnamese boat people in London. He took up residence in an African village to do research for a master’s thesis and spent nearly a decade as a missionary in Brazil.

As the mission secretary for the United Methodist Church in Germany, Kemper oversaw projects in 13 countries ranging from Albania to Zimbabwe. Ecumenically, he has worked with the largest Protestant development agency in Europe and co-founded a Protestant-Catholic commission in Latin America.

A layperson, he often takes on positions normally held by pastors. He is fluent in German, English and Portuguese, can converse in French and basic Spanish, and read Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Now Kemper, 53, has moved to New York. On March 15, he became the top executive of the international mission agency for The United Methodist Church.

“Not every former missionary…is really gifted for leadership in a mission agency, but Thomas was and is a gift to us all,” said retired Bishop Heinrich Bolleter of Switzerland, a former director of Global Ministries who works in the Geneva Office of the World Methodist Council.

He lauded Kemper’s expertise “as an active thinker, planner, communicator and team worker for mission,” and praised his efforts at cooperation with Methodist mission boards in Europe and other Protestant partners.

“He has put in place examples of how to engage the grass roots in mission and also how to build up a new readiness to support the UMC mission in Africa, Latin America and Asia financially,” Bolleter said.

A small boy’s view

Kemper’s exposure to other cultures began when he was a small boy living in Hamburg.

The port city served as a conduit for international visitors who would stop to see his father, the Rev. Gustav Kemper, and his Methodist congregation as they entered Germany, often spending the night. He heard the stories of missionaries and church officials and learned more about their shared faith.

During the same period, his father preached on a regular basis to a congregation of Gypsies, now known as Romas, and often took his son along. Sometimes, the congregation seemed strange and frightening, but more often Kemper was fascinated by the experience.

The seed for a lifetime of international mission work was planted, cultivated by the fact that the German church has always had a strong commitment to mission, dating back to its founding by Germans returning from the United States, “a kind of early globalization,” as Kemper characterizes it.

His formal education built on that commitment. He received a master’s degree in adult education, with minors in psychology and theology, from the University of Hamburg in 1982. His thesis topic was “Global Learning in Church Youth Work.”

Three years later, he earned a master’s degree in development sociology from the University of Bielefeld and spent three months living in a village in Burkina Faso as research for his thesis on “Ecology and the Social Structure in the Sahel.”

His early practical experience included an assignment from 1975-77 at the German Methodist Mission in London, where he managed the hostel and bilingual church, organized programs for international youth groups and worked with Vietnamese boat people.

Assignment in Brazil

After graduate school, Kemper and his wife, Barbara Hüfner-Kemper, shared a missionary assignment in Brazil from 1985 to 1994, appointed through the German United Methodist Board of Missions and the Methodist Church in Brazil. She is a psychologist. Two of their children—Ana, now 18, and Lena, 17—were born there. They also have a son, Joshua, 13.

When the family returned to Germany, he spent three years as director of ecumenical learning at the Lippische Landeskirche, a regional church of the Association of Protestant Churches in Germany, before becoming the mission leader for the United Methodist German Central Conference.

Since 1998, Kemper has led the German church into a wider exploration of what John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism, meant when he said, “I look upon all the world as my parish.”

Staff members of the 
Board of Global Ministries welcome Kemper last month. A UMNS photo by 
Chris Heckert.
Staff members of the Board of Global Ministries welcome Kemper last month. A UMNS photo by Chris Heckert.
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Kemper has encouraged a holistic perspective of mission that includes issues of social and economic justice as well as evangelism, said German Bishop Rosemarie Wenner.

“Many Methodists learned through his inspiring leadership that mission means partnership,” she added. “The local churches all over the world are the mission points and we send support to each other.”

German United Methodists support more than 80 projects with partner churches in 13 countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, often collaborating with Methodists in Great Britain and Ireland.

Among the innovations during Kemper’s tenure is the Christmas Campaign, which targets small donors for specific child- and youth-related projects and extends “well beyond our normal constituency because this was attractive to people outside the church,” he explained.

The 110,000 euros raised for Christmas 2009, for example, are being used to employ young people in Sierra Leone to make furniture for schools. Kemper also began volunteer-in-mission programs for German church members. “These people have really become the best ambassadors for our work,” he said.

Germans support HIV/AIDS ministries in Africa through the Ziegler AIDS Fund, established in memory of a German missionary couple who died in a car accident in Kenya in 2003. “We have raised almost 1 million euros so far,” Kemper said.

The global vision

As the top mission leader for The United Methodist Church, he will apply those skills and experiences to a broader canvas. His vision is “that we really become the global agency for a global church.”

Pontus Fred, a United Methodist from Finland, has served as a Board of Global Ministries director with Kemper and worked with him collaboratively in Europe. He believes Kemper will help the denomination worry less about structure and focus more on engaging local churches in mission.

“Large and financially strong churches are sometimes blamed for going into mission on their own, with no or very loose connections to the Board of Global Ministries,” Fred noted. “Out of a Central Conference perspective, I can certainly relate to this. Thomas knows the hopes we have (with) Global Ministries in this regard, and I believe these experiences can be one of the keys to bringing the agency closer to the local church.”

He already is at work on strengthening the mission agency, which underwent a structural reorganization, staff reductions and change in top leadership in 2009. “The short-term goal is to bring stability,” he declared.

Kemper said he is grateful the staff has carried on so well under those pressures and he expects to have a full leadership team in place by early summer. “We have everything we need to go ahead,” he added.

He would like to see U.S. United Methodists gain a new appreciation of their worldwide connection. “I really hope the church in the U.S. is ready … to be proud to be part of a church that is global,” he said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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