Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Future of Episcopacy in the UMC – Part 6

Bishops in the UMC have a thankless, lonely, and impossible job. Anyone who disagrees with that doesn't know much about the episcopacy in United Methodism. My own bishop is currently facing the task of appointing pastors to the three largest churches in our conference. That, along with the task of "servant leadership, general oversight and supervision," and "guarding the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church" for 203,961 members (2009 figures) of two annual conferences, is not just a daunting task - it is an impossible task.

I am with Russ Richey and Tom Frank, when they suggested in their book Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition that in the UMC, our bishops are really archbishops, and our district superintendents are bishops in the truest and most practical sense of the word. I wish we would just go ahead and make that name change now. John Wesley's own bias about bishops was everpresent in his writings and actions - using the word "superintendent" instead of "bishop/overseer" (a more biblical word). In a recent column by Donald Haynes, we are reminded that the layout of our church structure was influenced more by Francis Asbury than John Wesley. Even so, bishops slowly lost their power over the years - and while the power to make pastoral appointments is no small thing, the ever-changing reality of a broken itinerancy waters down that power. The Methodist itinerancy was designed for single young men on horseback in a rural/agrarian society. It was not designed for pastors with families, who possibly have spouses who are professionals, and who instead of living in a parsonage own a house. How itinerant can we really be? And how much "power" do bishops have to lead effectively?

Haynes suggested some new paradigms. I find myself in agreement with some and at variance with others:
• More bishops so they can be less bureaucratic, more pastoral and have more ongoing dialogue with their parish lay leadership and their clergy.
We already have this with what we now call superintendents. Let's call them bishops and allow them to function as such. In every sense of the word, superintendents fill that role in the traditional history and intent of the biblical word episkopé.
• Appointments follow a negotiated, consultative process in which local church laity have a voice in selection with the bishop making recommendations and having the right of "veto."
I don't think this is a bad idea either. Who else knows a congregation better than the leadership of its congregation? Forcing congregations to take a pastor because the cabinet/bishop "needs their church" is not servant leadership - it's serving clergy. The intent is wrong and the math is bad - the needs of the many are at stake in servanthood, not the needs of the servant.
• A cabinet of selected clergy and laity whom the bishop uses for advice in appointment-making (eliminating the expensive position of District Superintendent
Just call the superintendents "bishops." As far as what to do with archbishops? We need to elect our best and brightest mind and spiritual souls to this office - regardless of jurisdiction. Who do we trust to discern the Spirit and the will of God? Who can best select our leadership for our churches and areas? Those are the people whom we should elect. I mean, that's what we say the job is in the Book of Discipline. The main thing we have to ask ourselves is this: do we trust God and the Spirit enough to elect a man or woman to that task? If we really don't, let's quit playing games, get rid of the office, and go to a call system.
• Appointments made at any time during the calendar year, and made for four years, not one.
Amen. Longer tenures make for longer pastorates. I had the privilege of studying under Bishop Joel McDavid in seminary (he had retired and was the churchman-in-residence), and at lunch one day I remembering him saying that if you told a church and a pastor they had to make an appointment work for 3-4 years, it might work well beyond that - and the church might even grow. Of course, folks would counter that by saying that long tenures are bad for the appointive system. That begs the question: is the appointive system serving churches, or pastors?
• Use of more local pastors, part-time and full-time.
Amen again. I'm less convinced then ever that seminary-trained clergy are worth the costs of time and money. I might think differently if the Church was growing. More and more disciplines are getting away from the traditional educational model and moving toward a practical approach of training and educating. Why should ministry be any different?
• The tearful, economically driven demise of the Equitable Salary Fund and guaranteed appointment.
Absolutely. While the intent of both of these things was noble, I think the "experiment" has not yielded the results intended - akin to Prohibition in the 1920's and 30's: a great idea but it had unintended and disastrous consequences! The guaranteed appointment should have released pastors to be bold, creative, and prophetic. Instead, it has (for the most part) created complacency and ineffectiveness - at a horrible cost with loss of membership and economic hardship as the results. The Equitable Salary Fund and setting of minimum salaries was intended for missional purposes, but instead has given way to a welfare mentality and impediment to itinerancy. All elders in good standing MUST be appointed, and MUST be guaranteed a minimum compensation. What happens when an annual conference has more elders than they can appoint? And what happens when more money is needed to supplement minimum salaries than a conference can afford?
We could make the job of bishops a lot easier if we had reasonable expectations of them and trusted them. We instead ask them to do the impossible and when they don't deliver, then distrust and disdain set in. After a period of years, the cycle becomes self-perpetuating. Why don't things get any better? I suspect we have ourselves to blame: expecting growth and radical improvement when nothing has changed is unrealistic - and perhaps a little insane!

Dr. Haynes ended his article by reminding us of the seven last words of the church: "We've never done it that way before." I pray we not give in to temptation by repeating them. To quote the Good Book: "New wineskins for new wine."