Revisiting an Old Blog in Light of Call to Action

I wrote the blog below almost six years ago, partly in retrospect to being a jurisdictional delegate in years past, and I quoted Russ Richey and Tom Frank quite a bit in the years since then in my posts about bishops (click here to read more of them).

This past Sunday I met with two churches in the district I serve about right sizing in light of their pastor moving and some challenges regarding resources. I have their permission to "brag" on them about this - and it's a story worth telling.

It started out as a typical meeting between DS and PPR committees, with questions such as: what are you looking for in a new pastor, what kind of remuneration package can we set, what are your challenges, what preferences do you have - you get the idea. Finally, one member asked, "Look - we need to cut to the chase. Do we need to stay open? Do we need to close? Does the conference have a plan? What is the denomination doing?" He met my questions with much better questions. I (stupidly) said,"Well, we need to work together and find a good solution." That was met with, "Preacher, do you think any church would vote to close itself? If we need to close, you're our leader and you're gonna have to tell us." That provoked a lively discussion: are our leaders leading? These folks were saying, "No." And so I am leading them in finding a solution. These two churches are working wonderfully together; not to keep the churches open, but to actively make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. They are trusting me to lead them through this, and to make the final call. Part of me shakes to have that much responsibility. The other part reminds me that I am a vessel, a shepherd, a servant doing the will of the Master. I have to get over the false self of fear, and move on to discerning and living the truth. Some won't like it. Some will. Either of those things, however, are irrelevant, as this isn't an election: it's Kingdom work.

This conversation always gets me into trouble! The way we're supposed to "run" the church isn't according to a democracy: we're part of a Kingdom! And in our United Methodist tradition, we have bishops. Sort of (see the below discussion on episkopé and episkopoi).

I'm convinced that we Americans aren't very good at "take thou authority" because we see it as pushy, arrogant, or autocratic - the antithesis of one person/one vote. As a result, we have watered down leadership to the point where it is at best generic: it won't offend anyone, because nothing will be said or done. In trying to do no harm, I suspect we have caused great harm through our neglect of local churches and in the basics of our faith: making disciples.

I've heard every argument in the world for and against regarding the Call to Action for United Methodism. What I find ironic is that after lots of critique (and much of it merited) and complaints about our bishops NOT leading, they (and others) dared to cast a vision in an effort to help us go forward... and some folks are dead-set on sending it down in flames. I am sure some dismiss it BECAUSE it comes from the Council. Some say it is theologically weak, yet many of the arguments I've heard sound more like political rhetoric than honest critique (I guess it's the season we're in!). Some say it wasn't spiritually formed... which suggests that those who helped design it weren't (?). And some say there needs to be more strategy fleshed out, but I find myself wondering if ANY plan, super-documented and full of action plans, would have a prayer for these simple reasons: it's a change. We don't trust others. It's an unknown.

And so I repost an old blog so that we might support our present bishops and support those who might be elected bishops in the months to come. I am certainly prejudiced as a superintendent, being a representative of the office of bishop. But I also love the United Methodist Church, and believe she is of God. In praying for our leaders, let us pray about leadership itself, and how we might embody it!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

I say Part 0.5… because this should have preceded my May 26th blog entry.

It strikes me as problematic that The Book of Discipline talks a lot about the praxis of the episcopacy yet says ZERO about the theological foundations of episcopacy. Worse, there are been virtually NO discussions in any medium regarding the ecclesiology of bishops. All of this became painfully obvious to me when I was a jurisdictional delegate in 2004.

Electing six bishops in the Southeastern Jurisdiction in 2004 was no easy task…as the record number of ballots to elect six certainly testified! My take on it was that we live in a Church and world so desperately crying out for leadership that we want to make the right decision. So, it appeared to me, we elected folks based (1) on “pedigree,” and (2) by racial and gender makeup. While we desperately need good leadership in a denomination living in such interesting times, I think we continue to expect a lot of our bishops without empowering them to the task.

Scholar Raymond E. Brown wrote about the distinction between episkopé and episkopoi. Episkopé has to do with oversight and function in the Church. Episkopoi is the actual office/person of a bishop. We say that our bishops have “general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church,” (¶45, Book of Discipline). But in actuality, if you read the Discipline and see how General Agencies and the General Conference works, most of the oversight (and certainly agents of change) occurs there rather than by the bishops. Unlike Catholicism, the General Conference - not the episcopacy - is the magisterium in United Methodism. And if you’ve ever been to General Conference, you realize quickly that caucuses and lobbies often help influence and carry the vote. In short, the UMC is a democratic body… hopefully led by the Spirit, but democratic nonetheless. Our episkopé, it seems, is the General Conference and General Agencies. The episkopoi that we elect are relegated to be administrative heads and executive officers.

Is it fair, then, to expect them to be agents of change when we don’t even give them a vote? Make no mistake, the power to appoint pastors is no small thing, but even when a bishop ordains ministerial candidates, they have absolutely no say about who they ordain: that’s the conference Board of Ministry’s job. The list goes on and on. Should we really be nominating and electing our best leaders and prophets, or elect our best administrators and organizers instead? We’ve elected some really talented folks, but I think the episcopal office as present in the UMC stifles the very gifts that got them nominated and elected in the first place.

It’s really not surprising in United Methodism that we don’t give bishops more authority; the UMC is mostly an American church, and America loves its individualism and democracy. America also likes to have someone “in charge” to blame. Is it possible that we set bishops up just as we do CEO’s of corporations? If we're doing well and succeeding, great: we’ll keep paying you and giving you your status. But if things are going wrong, it’s your fault – and we can point our collective finger at you and blame you; after all, you’re our leader. We may not give you enough authority and power to do anything, but hey, that’s why you get the big bucks.

To quote one excellent source: “Bishops have no program and propose no legislation. They do not appoint heads of administrative agencies and have limited powers of nomination. They have few sanctions at their disposal, and certainly no right to fire the people they work with. [They have no] legislative or judicial authority.” (Richey and Frank, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, p. 96).

Why in the heck would you want this job? Do elected bishops know what’s in front of them before they are consecrated? And do we as a Church have any idea what we’re doing (or not doing) when we lay hands on someone and consecrate them to the office?

It’s possible that we’ve given our bishops an impossible task. We live in a time when the Church is crying out for leadership… but are we giving our bishops the tools to do it?

Sometime, I’ll post another blog with some strategies and proposals.


We should all be indebted to Russell Richey and Thomas Frank for their book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition – Perspectives and Proposals. I hope the Church appreciates and ponders their gift to us, and hope that Dean Richey and Tom will forgive me if I confused my own thoughts with theirs and didn’t footnote properly (yes, I’m still scared of my former seminary professors).