UMNS Photo by Paul Jeffrey
While annual conference season percolates across the U.S. branch of The United Methodist Church, many eyes are turning toward the next Big Event in the denomination's four-year cycle: the July 18-21 elections of bishops in the five U.S. jurisdictions.
Episcopal elections are always highly political affairs, but this year they will be fraught with even more anxiety following a General Conference in which most of the proposals put forth by the Council of Bishops went down in flames. Elimination of guaranteed annual appointment for clergy proved to be the one major exception to the bishops' sub-basement batting average, and that change that has washed away the last vestiges of trust remaining in the so-called "clergy covenant."
All across the blogosphere, Facebook and the Twitterverse, bishops have been bemoaning General Conference decisions as the failure of the rank-and-file to fall in line with the enlightened wisdom of their leaders. Meanwhile the rank-and-file, from younger clergy and lay members right up through longtime leaders, are telling the bishops in no uncertain terms that their performance has been unsatisfactory, their centralized command-and-control mindset is out of touch, and they'd better pay more attention to their grassroots constituency if they really want United Methodists' trust and respect.
The questions now before the denomination in the United States are:
- What do American United Methodists want from their bishops?
- Will those who elect bishops in July pay attention to those expressed needs?
It's easier to answer the second question than the first. Like annual conferences and the General Conference, Jurisdictional Conferences are made up of equal numbers of clergy and laity. The demographics of Jurisdictional Conferences roughly equate to those of General Conference. Jurisdictional delegates are typically older, richer and whiter than the people the church says it wants to welcome, namely the poor, the young and people of color of all economic strata. What's more, since Jurisdictional Conferences are designed specifically to attend to institutional issues, voices for social justice, episcopal accountability, transparent governance, and shared authority are often squelched.
In short, Jurisdictional Conference delegates are typically "of the institution, by the institution and for the institution" kind of folks. When they elect bishops, they elect men and women who have shown themselves to be good institutional administrators. It's no secret across the denomination that many truly excellent United Methodist spiritual leaders have resisted episcopal candidacy, and some good spiritual leaders who succumbed to the lure of the church's highest office have lived to regret it.
If anything is likely to influence this longstanding mindset, it's the elimination of guaranteed appointment for clergy. Bishops and General Conference delegates alike have vastly underestimated the backlash now brewing among clergy who see this action as breaking a longstanding covenant: "You agree to itinerate, and we agree to guarantee you an appointment."