Who do Bishops Think They Are? #UMC

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.

Your turn:

  • 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)
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    • Carolyn says

      Wait, the Social Principles are now part of the BOD? In what ways do they bind behavior of the lairy? In what ways to they bind the ways in which clergy teach ethics? I’m not quite understanding their function in the BOD?

  1. Sarah says

    So I’m a long time fan. I’m a 37 year old female who was a lay speaker and was appointed and am going through the LLP process. I am bi-vocational and work for Procter & Gamble and find my business experience to be INVALUABLE in my leadership work.

    I get nervous when I see people make a polarity between connection and executive.

    When you find GOOD executive leadership it is by nature, connectional. When you find good connection churches you will likely find a few clear executives. These are not polarities but merly tools in the overall toolbox, at least the way I see it.

    I actually would be OK with Bishops taking more control because then what Methodism really is could be better defined and we reconciling Methodists could understand what we really need to do (ie do we really need to form a church/denomination) rather than just keep hanging on and trying to clarify leadership.

    I actually think better/stronger leadership would help the Methodist organization if only because then once and for all we would know what directio we are going after as a large people and then we could go there. Right now we all seem to be pulling different directions and as a result we keep going around the mountain again and again.

    I’m all for strong leadership as long as those leaders are connected to those they lead and listen. That is Connectional Leadership to me and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with whether it is “executive” or not.

  2. says

    I’m a bit confused by the allegation that the bishop did something wrong here. Could not any member of the GC try to persuade delegates to vote in ways that he or she thought was best for the denomination?

    The third-hand story is dramatic, but what exactly is the offense here?

    When you call for a “Wesleyan” style of leadership, are you familiar with John Wesley’s leadership style?

    • says

      The offense to me is the direct intervention by the Bishop in the proceedings. Delegates are to be guided by the Holy Spirit. While there are advocates and activists on all sides (I speak as one of them), I believe Bishops are called to a different role at General Conference.

      I’m familiar with Wesley but since I’m not a Neo-Wesleyan like the #andcanitbe movement, I’m not interested in going back to how Wesley did it but in how the church has interpreted Wesley since.

      • says

        I’m not trying to make you a neo-Wesleyan, but since you used terms like “Wesleyan form of leadership” I figured you were making reference to Mr. Wesley’s style of leadershp.

    • Paul Fleck says

      John- The Bishop in question was not a member of the General Conference. There are lay delegates and clergy delegates, but none of the Bishops are delegates. Bishops don’t vote and shouldn’t have a say, especially given their role as presiding officers in plenary session.

      • says

        I guess I had never thought what the “proper” role of bishops is. I don’t find the notion of them floating around and sharing their points of view that offensive, but perhaps I am insufficiently suspicious of the episcopacy.

  3. says

    Piggy backing off of Mr. Meunier, I think it would be good to treat Asbury’s leadership style with a little more texture. It is universally acknowledged among Asbury scholars that while he did not lead with a strong hand during conferences, he framed conferences and readjusted them as he saw fit. He chose who would get to speak, who had authority, and who should have their exhortations heard. When something wasn’t going a way he liked, he called special back room meetings, as he did on several occasions when the clergy were on the brink of leaving episcopal power behind. By doing so, Asbury fought very hard for, and succeeded in protecting, the episcopacy. He used the power of this office with magnanimity, grace, and love, and for that reason the denomination flourished. Near the end of his life he mourned the loss of episcopal authority and the rise of clergy who felt entitled to leadership.

    All this to say, Jeremy, that I think you used the wrong illustration to make your point here. By Wesley and Asbury ruled with iron fists. The idea of the denomination reflecting democratic values is separated from the leadership of early wesleyans, and it is one of the reasons we find our current gridlock reflecting our government. Not that there isn’t a good case to be made for democracy over episcopacy, but I think it is important to use the correct reference points. I think it’s also helpful to remember that this is not the first time someone has cried for more democracy against the episcopacy in Methodism. This has been the rallying cry of many separation movements that eventually stagnated or petered out…

    • says

      That’s a helpful example about Asbury, Jeff. While I still claim that his style was to facilitate the conference (even to his own ends) rather than to dictate it from the bench, your examples give more context than mine. My claim is not to denigrate the Episcopacy–my claim is that inherent in the power of the Bishops is the need for restraint to allow the Holy Spirit room in the two weeks of General Conference. The proceedings are balanced 50% lay, 50% clergy…why would the Bishops upend that balance?

      Frankly, I’m not advocating a democratic style at the expense of Episcopal leadership (as many of the renewal groups have done–have you really never heard of BishopWatch back in the day?). As I said, Episcopal leadership is necessary 3.95 years out of every 4. But what kind of leadership is most needed at General Conference from our Bishops? The example above is one that I don’t think is needed, helpful, or faithful.

  4. Jeni Markham Clewell says

    Like the social principles, maybe the Bishops at General Conference should be persuasive and not coercive. Sounds like a coercive bishop let loose on some vulnerable laity and clergy at GC. Shame! Shame!

  5. Creed Pogue says

    So, when Bishop Talbert publicly calls on clergy to disobey the Discipline he is being “prophetic” but a bishop talking to their delegation is terrible??? You and the monitor simply didn’t like the bishop’s advice. Since everything is a secret ballot, there is no way to know if the delegation went along with the bishop’s desires or not.

    Also, there have been too many situations where stories involving no names turn out in reality to be much less than advertised. Unfortunately, this anecdote and your reaction is another example of how the “worldwide church” effort is just about changing our stances on human sexuality rather than giving the central conferences “more” power by giving the jurisdictional conferences more autonomy.

    I would agree that my perspective as a layperson with no plans to go on the clergy track and without family in the clergy track may be different than clergy. I would imagine that for many of us telling a story of how the bishop tried to tell us how to vote and our determination to do what we thought the Spirit was leading us toward regardless would be a positive not a negative.

    It makes more sense to give bishops floor privilieges. Here are the people who are supposedly the most gifted, the most knowledgeable and the most powerful but we don’t want them to speak at our governing meeting?

    Regarding coercion, what bishops can do publicly is sufficient. The Paup case is an unfortunate example. Allegations were made and then dismissed by Bishop Swanson. Bishop Swanson retires and Bishop Stanovsky comes in. With no statement of whether there is any additional information, Bishop Stanovsky revives the complaints and makes a public statement while Rev. Paup is battling a brain tumor. She later ends the proceedings by saying that the complainants felt they achieved their objecitves. It is impossible for both bishops to have made the correct decision.

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