UMNS Photo by Paul Jeffrey
Bishop addresses protesters
Council of Bishops President Rosemarie Wenner of Germany tells dozens of demonstrators for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in The United Methodist Church that the denomination's bishops feel their pain. Several dozen demonstrators took over the plenary floor of the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla., on May 3 after the body reaffirmed the church's stance on homosexuality.
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."
Nor is the angst and anger confined to the clergy. Alert congregational leaders are likewise anxious about whether beloved pastors who tend to souls rather than metrics will be removed as "ineffective" under the bishops' Vital Congregations initiative. One example from a recent district meeting: After the superintendent read a message from the bishop promising a fair appointment process in future, an entire row of pastors and lay leaders stage-whispered: "Why should we believe you?"
So with all this anger, mistrust and disillusionment swirling around, what do United Methodists want from their bishops? A few gleanings from various online conversations produced the following list of desired episcopal qualities:
* Evidence of spiritual maturity and discipline, such as the qualities listed in Galatians 5:22;
* Humility before God and the people, shown in a willingness to forego the pomp of episcopal office;
* Transparency in church governance, with prompt responses to congregations' inquiries and clear-cut evidence that Book of Discipline protections afforded both clergy and congregations are being followed;
* Actions and attitudes that show bishops in relationship with, rather than in authority over, the congregations they serve;
* More attention to local needs and less global gallivanting;
* Collaborative, not authoritarian, leadership;
* Fluency in social networking – not merely using the technology, but respecting the free flow of information inherent to digital society;
* Frequent listening sessions in which laypeople are treated with the same respect that bishops want for themselves;
* Some kind of accountability for inappropriate actions by bishops, such as being overruled by their jurisdiction's College of Bishops or by a jurisdictional committee.
These qualities – particularly the last – show the cultural friction that exists among United Methodist episcopal leaders, pastors and members. How long the current institution can withstand this level of tectonic strain is anyone's guess. Already there are rumblings across the denomination among some groups that it's time to defect in place, with talk of using existing congregations to start alternative, all-inclusive faith communities that ultimately can form an egalitarian, networked, missional kind of 21st century church – maybe Methodist, but maybe not.
Given these cultural realities, perhaps the skills to heal wounds, forge relationships and inspire faith, hope, and love should be the paramount qualities that U.S. jurisdictional delegates seek in episcopal nominees come this July.