While the joke is that at General Conference the Bishops are called “potted plants” as they sit silently set-apart from the rest of Conference, at least one bishop last year didn’t stay in the garden.
At General Conference 2012, one of the monitors was sitting in a committee and witnessed an extraordinary sight. A bishop was sitting in the observer gallery and waited for a recess. The chair called for one, and the bishop gathered a group of delegates who were voting on what parts of the Discipline applied across the entire world…within earshot of the monitor. The bishop encouraged the group to include the Social Principles in the worldwide section, explicitly so that any decisions on homosexuality would apply to everyone across the world. Perhaps “encouraged” is even too charitable a word–it was more like angrily ripped into the delegates for not realizing what they had done and then organizing them to come back in and bring the legislation back because they had been confused and “voted the wrong way.”
The group regathered with the rest, then brought up that legislation, and when some discussion and vote on amendments came, that group kept looking back at the bishop who would give up-or-down thumbs as to how to vote. The Social Principles was included in the final draft and now sits in paragraph 101 of the 2012 Book of Discipline.
For all the talk from the Call to Action about Bishops needing more ability to lead, it sure seemed like there was an awful lot of leading going on in an area where the Bishop had no direct need to be doing so. And I wonder if this overreach is one aberration or if it is an overall misconception of the Bishop’s role at General Conference.
I believe that the confusion of the Bishop’s role at General Conference came directly from the Episcopal Address at GC, but it really began with precisely the example that the Address included this past year. Bishop Peter Weaver (recently retired from New England) gave the Episcopal Address on the first day of General Conference and talked about doing things in new ways. He referenced that this was the 200th anniversary of the Episcopal Address and gave an example exchange from that first address. From the Episcopal Address (page 1930), here is that section:
It was Eastertide 1812. It was a time, like ours, of great change and transition inthe Methodist movement. The old order was disappearing. The traditional centers of power no longer dominated the decision making. Tough decisions had to be made about moral issues, the structure of the church and the power of the bishops.
The old guard was changing. Asbury was aging and declining, so the bishop presiding was the younger William McKendree, who much to Asbury’s dismay, still wore red flannel shirts. But it was Eastertide. Bishop McKendree, without alerting Bishop Asbury, stood up and read a stirring, first Episcopal Address. When McKendree had finished, Asbury struggled to his feet exclaiming, “I never did business in this way. Why is this new thing introduced?”*
Well, General Conference has been full of new things ever since! Things that will again cause some of us to exclaim, “Why is this new thing introduced?
*Reference for McKendree quote: James E. Kirby, The Episcopacy in American Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 80.
While used to great eloquence in the speech, fear of “new things” was not what Asbury was commenting on.
I met with a Wesleyan scholar at GC2012 and the scholar recounted the following to me (summarized):
Before McKendree, bishops did not interfere with General Conference. They kept themselves apart and created the space for the Spirit to lead the people, sometimes with gentle correction. With the first Episcopal address laying out an agenda and exhortations to specific goals, this was a break from the past. So Asbury was incredulous that the role of the Bishop was being expanded into a realm where he believed it ought not go.
For good or for ill, some bishops lobby for legislative change at General Conference and some keep to themselves, perhaps offering special talents as Parliamentarians (my committee on General Administration had a terrific retired bishop as parliamentarian) or other facilitative ways. But few actively sit in committees and directly dictate the legislative process as the monitor observed.
Tim after time, I must point out the failures of relying on lessons from the business world, as they completely misinterpret what the leadership structure is of the United Methodist Church.
- In the business world, executive wisdom comes from the top-down. Little wonder that the Call To Action concentrated power in a few people at the top who would then have fiscal and governing abilities over the entirety of United Methodism. Top-down power fits the business model of offices and ranks.
- In the Wesleyan world, connectional leadership provide the space for the Spirit to guide from the bottom-up. The role of the connectional leader is to help struggling parts of the connectional experience and celebrate parts of the connection. Leadership is a function, not an office or a rank.
My hope is that current and future bishops recognize the historical concern of Bishop Asbury and how that tension flares up every four years between facilitating the Holy Spirit and meddling with a separate branch of United Methodism…and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance for 2016.
- What do you think the role should be of Bishops at General Conference?
- How do we reclaim the Wesleyan form of leadership as connectional and not executive?
Thanks for your comments!For those concerned that I’m ignoring explicit examples of leadership and aberrant leadership from current bishops today, please know my comments are limited specifically to the 2 week period of General Conference every four years. I’m not commenting on the leadership style of the other 3.95 years between General Conferences. Thanks. (Photo credit: “Bishop” by angeloangelo on Flickr, Creative Commons share)