Bishops, Conference and Mission

We United Methodists are a missionary movement. We began as an effort to reform the United Kingdom and its established church. As the United States began with its experiment in religious freedom, we became a church. We share many aspects of our ecclesiology with other Christian churches, and our long-term commitment is to the unity of all Christians.

There are two structural aspects of our self-understanding that are essential to who we are: conference and episcopacy. They have been present since our founding in 1784 and reside in our constitution. These two have, at our best, enabled our missional effectiveness. Nathan Hatch in his Democratization of  American Christianity describes an amazing balance in Methodism between the strong leadership of bishops and the democratic influence of conference. That extreme center balance has been a key to our success!

Some historians believe that the history of the Methodist side of our church is best written by attending to the tension between these two constitutional poles. In many ways, the tension was resolved in 1939 when the Methodist Protestants and the two branches of the Methodist Episcopal Church United. General Conference became supreme over the bishops. Yet, the bishops remain as the executive authority with significant leadership responsibility.

The question before us as a church today is how can bishops best serve the church?

I believe that bishops need to spend more time in their conferences teaching and inspiring the people. I believe that bishops need to spend significant time ramping up their leadership skills. I believe that bishops need to have the backbone to make appointments based on missional effectiveness and not the seniority system. I believe that bishops need to be strong, sensitive, humble, visionary and focused servant leaders. I believe that bishops need to be willing to make difficult personnel decisions, always asking “what will increase the vitality of the local churches in this annual conference?”

The Call to Action has asked for a ten year focus on local church vitality. That means I need to behave differently, as do all of my active colleagues. Many of us have been trying to learn what this means, and I am extremely grateful for the two learning groups in which I participate. We have been asking difficult questions about how to lead change in an established institution.

The Council of Bishops needs desperately to change. We have more retired bishops than active bishops in the Council, and this skews our agenda and our conversations. We desperately need a space for active bishops to meet on their own. We also need an active bishop to serve full-time as President of the Council. Those who have referred to this as a United Methodist “pope” either do not understand the Roman Catholic Church or the United Methodist General Conference. Our General Conference is the ultimate authority in our denomination, subject to the constitution and the votes of annual conference members to change it.

Next week I will write about the general agencies we need.

Why Extreme Center?

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