By Elliott Wright 
March 20, 2020 | ATLANTA

A dedicated servant leader and experienced administrator will lead the worldwide mission agency of The United Methodist Church, beginning in the fall of 2020.

Roland Fernandes, a layman originally from India, was elected to serve as the next general secretary (chief executive) of the General Board of Global Ministries by the agency’s directors on March 20. He will succeed Thomas Kemper, who has chosen not to stand for reelection to the position he has held for a decade.

The vote took place during a video conference serving as the semi-annual directors’ meeting. A face-to-face meeting at Global Ministries’ Atlanta headquarters was not possible because of travel bans related to the coronavirus pandemic. The 32-voting directors represent 9 countries and 21 states and U.S. territories.

Fernandes has been with Global Ministries since 1995, filling key roles, including leadership of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), the denomination’s humanitarian relief and development unit. He has been both chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Global Ministries/UMCOR since 2003 and has several times served as interim general secretary. 

“At this time when our church faces both great mission opportunities and deep structural uncertainty, Roland Fernandes offers a strong sense of stability in purpose and continuity in operations,” said the Rev. Deanna Stickley-Miner, chair of the Global Ministries’ personnel committee, making reference to divisions within the denomination over the inclusion of LGBTQ persons. “He is a person of deep faith and integrity and knows our work as well or better than anyone in Methodism. Roland understands and is committed to the theology and values that undergird our ministry. He possesses proven skills that will be critical in the days to come. He enjoys respect throughout the full Methodist family as well as the ecumenical community.”  

Global Ministries is currently celebrating the 200th anniversary of the founding of its oldest predecessor, the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The agency has personnel, projects and program partners in more than 114 countries, with missionaries in 70. 

“We are indeed fortunate to have within our organization a leader especially well equipped for the general secretary’s role,” said Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of the Wisconsin Episcopal Area, president of Global Ministries. “Roland Fernandes understands the spiritual, social and economic realities of global mission. He has a firm grasp of what it means to place and support missionaries, work with communities devastated by disasters and disease and collaborate with partners within and beyond the United Methodist connection.”

Fernandes and his wife, Liesl, are members of North Decatur United Methodist Church in suburban Atlanta, where he serves as treasurer. He grew up in Kolkata, India, and graduated from St. Xavier’s College and School, Kolkata, and Calcutta University. Following graduation with a Master of Commerce degree, Fernandes became a Chartered Accountant (CPA equivalency in the British system). He served as chief internal auditor of the Methodist Church in India (MCI) from 1988 through 1994. In that role, he was an officer of the MCI and part of the church’s core leadership. 

Photo: Jennifer Silver

In 1995, Fernandes joined the then World Division of Global Ministries as a missionary assigned as area financial executive for India, a post he held for two years, adding the Philippines to his portfolio in 1996 following the sudden death of the World Division’s financial officer there. He joined the staff of Global Ministries in New York in 1997 in the Financial Services area of UMCOR. 

Over the last 27 years, the general secretary-elect has been involved in every aspect of the work of Global Ministries and UMCOR. He has been treasurer of UMCOR since 2000 and executive director of that entity for the last two years. For two decades he played a key leadership role in the UMCOR nongovernmental organization/International Programs unit, which included 15 field offices until the last of the field offices was transitioned into local NGOSs at the end of 2019.

“The opportunity to serve as general secretary of Global Ministries is one I welcome with a sense of deep humility,” Fernandes said of his election. “I have sensed for some time that a transition from primarily fiscal responsibilities was coming. This discernment process revealed that it is still God’s mission calling me and I am thankful that the Holy Spirit and the Global Ministries directors have looked to me to lead this agency, which is so essential to our church’s faithful response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. These are difficult days for United Methodism and I pledge my full attention to holistic mission in the tradition of John Wesley and the 200 years of our past work. We will get through these difficult times only by working together.”

A smooth transition is expected between the Kemper and Fernandes administrations at Global Ministries. The two mission leaders have worked closely together for many years on a wide array of issues. “I am filled with joy that the directors have chosen Roland Fernandes to lead our United Methodist mission work at this juncture in time. He has the experience and the vision required for the unfolding decade of the 2020s. He is patient, bold, and he believes in the power of grace to accomplish God’s mission,” Kemper said.

Fernandes has worked with a succession of general secretaries in the design and implementation of mission programming and its operation and financing. He moved the agency from a deficit in 2003 to the stable financial position it has experienced in recent years. He introduced innovative and efficient monitoring and evaluation practices, strengthened missionary retirement benefit plans, and oversaw the successful move of Global Ministries’ headquarters from New York City to Atlanta in 2016. He has also actively promoted collaboration among the United Methodist agencies toward the goal of greater efficiency through shared services.

One of his most rewarding involvements has been in the creation of the UMCOR Armenia Foundation that is flourishing today in service to a very vulnerable population. This is done with the income generated from AREGAK, a microcredit organization founded by UMCOR. “Our work in Armenia gives witness to what can happen when people work together for the common good in the name of God’s love,” he says. “For me, personally, it continues my life-long interest in improving the lives of those who live on the margins of our society.”

Fernandes was a founding trustee of “Prayatna” (meaning “Endeavor”), a society in Mumbai, India, that works with poor and disadvantaged women and children. He is a board member and treasurer of Church World Service, the ecumenical relief agency. He is active in Illuman, a nonprofit agency committed to supporting men who seek to transform their lives, founded by Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan spiritual writer.

Fernandes looks forward to Global Ministries’ continuing leadership in equipping the church and its people for God’s mission around the world. “Mission is the heart of the church’s work,” he says, “and Global Ministries is uniquely prepared to further God’s efforts on behalf of the whole world for another century.”

Elliott Wright is a communications consultant with Global Ministries.