UMNS Illustration by Kathleen Barry
Kids bring home report cards. Employees typically undergo annual reviews. And now, United Methodist bishops get formal evaluations as well.
But just as each class has its own way of grading, each U.S. jurisdiction varies in how it appraises bishops.
The 2008 Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, for the first time requires the United Methodist episcopacy committees that oversee bishops around the globe “to establish and implement processes” to evaluate each active bishop at least once every four years.
The assessments must include self-evaluations from the bishops, input from their episcopal peers and comments from individuals affected by their leadership (such as district superintendents, lay leaders and directors of agency boards on which the bishops serve).
Those evaluations will play a role this week as jurisdictional conferences get under way across the United States and jurisdictional committees on the episcopacy recommend where U.S. bishops will serve during the next four years.
Responses to questionnaires on Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe likely will play a critical role during the South Central Jurisdiction episcopacy committee’s closed-door hearing with Bledsoe on Monday, July 16. The committee’s hearing could ultimately determine whether Bledsoe, who leads the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference remains an active bishop, or whether the committee by at least a two-thirds vote compels his early retirement.
Even before the 2008 requirement of formal evaluations, some jurisdictional and central conference episcopacy committees have carried out bishop assessments on their own. Since the 1976 Book of Discipline, episcopacy committees — within certain limits — have had the authority to place a bishop in involuntary retirement by a two-thirds vote. That possibility is what Bledsoe now faces.
“As a member of the committee, I have found the questionnaires helpful as one of several sources of information used in the evaluation process,” said Don House, the South Central committee’s chair and a lay member of the Texas Conference.
Report cards for the bishops
The Book of Discipline defines bishops as elders “set apart for a ministry of servant leadership, general oversight and supervision.”
The law book goes on to say that bishops must possess:
- A vital and renewing spirit
- An enquiring mind and a commitment to the teaching office
- A vision for the church
- A prophetic commitment for the transformation of the church and the world
- A passion for the unity of the church
- The ministry of administration
So far, the episcopacy committees in four of the five U.S. jurisdictions have developed questionnaires based on these requirements to use in evaluating their bishops.
The United Methodist News Service asked representatives of each jurisdictional episcopacy committees to share what metrics they use in assessing bishops.
At a glance, here is what they provided:
- The South Central Jurisdiction uses three documents: a questionnaire for the bishop and two episcopal area questionnaires for annual conference members, Part A that profiles the area and Part B that assesses the bishop.
- The Southeastern Jurisdiction also uses three documents: a self-evaluation where bishops share their gifts and passions, an overview of the episcopal area and a bishop’s assessment that covers eight areas of ministry.
- The Northeastern Jurisdiction models its bishops’ evaluation tool closely on the requirements for bishops outlined in the Book of Discipline.
- The North Central Jurisdiction offers a toolkit for annual conference committees on the episcopacy as well as an episcopal leadership evaluation and annual conference profile.
The episcopacy committee of the Western Jurisdiction, which will not be electing any new bishops this year, is still formalizing its evaluation tool, said Greg Nelson, the committee’s chair and director of communications for the Oregon-Idaho Conference.
Each jurisdictional episcopacy committee includes a clergy delegate and a lay delegate from each of that jurisdiction’s conferences.
Example of how evaluations take place
The evaluation tools all examine the spiritual leadership of bishops in areas such as disciple making as well as their stewardship in such practical matters as church giving. Evaluations also typically take place with strict confidentiality.
However, the committees vary in how they carry out evaluations.
The Rev. John Ed Mathison, chair of the Southeastern Jurisdiction episcopacy committee, offers the example of his committee’s process.
He said the jurisdictional committee requests each annual conference to determine a number “somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 people” to be involved in the evaluation process of their bishop. The individuals should be of different age groups and represent different ministries.
“We didn’t want the evaluation to come simply from the cabinet and a few selected leaders,” said Mathison, who is also a retired clergy member of the Alabama-West Florida Conference.
His group also encourages each conference committee on the episcopacy to include an outside bishop in the evaluation. For example, the Alabama-West Florida Conference invited Louisville (Ky.) Area Bishop Lindsey Davis to help with the evaluation of the conference’s Bishop Paul L. Leeland.
The jurisdictional committee relies heavily on the evaluation process from the conferences, Mathison said.
“We were asking episcopal committees to look at these evaluation forms and work with the bishops to provide growth opportunities,” he said. “We don’t see the evaluation process as ending simply when a report is made, but putting in place some structure for assisting that bishop in a good program of development.”
He estimates about 85 percent of the evaluation process comes from written data and about 15 percent comes from personal observation.
Mathison and other episcopacy committee chairs said the hope is to help bishops succeed in their ministry.
A bishop’s perspective
Bishop Jane Allen Middleton, who leads the Susquehanna Conference in Pennsylvania, is a veteran of bishop evaluations, which the Northeastern Jurisdiction had conducted for years before 2008.
The personal assessment and feedback from others serve as “a kind of bellwether,” said Middleton, who will retire later this year. “So yes, there is a level of help.”
However, she said, there are limits to their usefulness.
Just as it is frustrating to try to measure fully the work of a pastor, she said, it is no less disconcerting to try to do the same with bishops. She recalls being involved in the assessment of a bishop who she thought was very effective but whose evaluation came out very poorly on paper.
“It’s kind of like the proverbial elephant being examined in a dark room — no one sees the full work of a bishop,” she said. “And because the work has such breadth, it’s very hard to get appropriate feedback.”
Another struggle, she said, is that sometimes people only tell bishops what they think they want to hear.
At their best, the standardized evaluation forms can be “tools for dialogue and gaining insights on leadership needs and effectiveness,” she said.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.