A call to reduce the number of bishops by almost 25% is a drastic overreaction to the financial and governance problems of The United Methodist Church.
The Proposal: no new Bishops…but why?
As reported by United Methodist News, the Council of Bishops* are proposing to reduce their numbers in order to return solvency to the Episcopal Fund, which is used to pay for bishops. This would effectively reduce the number of bishops from 66 to 51, mostly in the USA. That’s a lot!
The Episcopal Fund is like an HR budget: you have mostly fixed costs based on the number of bishops. Solvency is either from more money coming in (increasing apportionments), or reduction of fixed costs (elimination of Bishop positions).
Back in the Summer when this proposal was first pitched, the numbers seemed dire: without a drastic reduction of bishops, it was doomed to insolvency in 2024.
Or is it?
Turns out 2020 wasn’t as bad (financially) as expected
UMNS reported that a large chunk of apportionments came in December 2020–so much that they met their spending plan. In 2020, the balance of the Episcopal Fund actually raised a small amount. While that’s not cause for relaxation (2020’s expenses are significantly reduced because of COVID-19, and that’s not expected to continue at the same low level), it does make the impetus for drastic change to be reduced.
Even as General Agencies and General Commissions reduce expenditures or lay off staff, the apportionments coming in actually met the expectation. 2021 will be much worse, though, because GCFA sent lower apportionment expectations to annual conferences, and annual conferences budget on allocating the vastly reduced number of apportionments. We’ll come back to this topic in a follow-up article.
Regardless, the financial picture has changed. And people are noticing the numbers don’t line up with the bishops’ proposal.
Northern Illinois Open Letter
The Northern Illinois Annual Conference Delegation ran the numbers and determined in an open letter that this proposal is short-sighted.
At the end of 2016, the Episcopal Fund had a reserve of $19.1million, the highest level in at least 20 years. 2016 General Conference decided to spend $10.9 million of that reserve while reducing the apportionments to the jurisdictional conferences by .7%. We also added an apportionment for the Central Conferences at a more affordable apportionment formula. (see 2016 Daily Christian Advocate pages 1682-1691). Simple math would suggest that we set a course of reserve use that would leave us with $8.2 million (19.1 minus 10.9) at the end of 2020. In fact, we ended this quadrennium with $14.1 million; the reserve even went up slightly after 2020, during the pandemic. It is the second highest reserve level to the Episcopal Fund over the last 20 years; reserves are about two thirds of the amount of annual spending. One would think being $5.9 million above expectation would be cause for celebration. We are told it is not. We are told this is a crisis.
So what is going on? And why is this a big push?
A manufactured crisis from 2016
Let’s be clear: the expected reduction in solvency of the Episcopal Fund didn’t happen because of COVID-19. It happened in 2016, and we voted for it. As the Northern Illinois delegation notes, we approved deficit spending in 2016, and ended up better than expected. Indeed, back in 2016, Hacking Christianity even reported on this defunding, expecting that the funding would run out before it did.
So why did we approve this deficit spending in 2016? We approved the budget from General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), which called for deficit spending from what was the high-water mark of the Episcopal Fund reserves. GCFA recommended deficit spending, cut the apportionment to the jurisdictions, and the 2016 General Conference approved it.
Instead of increasing the apportionment and actually paying for the bishops, GCFA’s budget defunded the bishops and caused this crisis in the first place. It has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. But instead of call them to accountability, the Bishops are falling on their own sword.
Problematic sidebar: 2016 Constitutional Amendment on Episcopacy
A quick sidebar of concern for fans of the separation of powers in The United Methodist Church: Currently, no single group of Bishops has a majority in The United Methodist Church. Progressives don’t have a majority, moderate centrists are closest but don’t have a majority, Traditionalists have a majority in the South Central jurisdiction but not elsewhere. This is also true by region: no single region (jurisdiction or central conference) has a majority number of bishops. This means the body works together across geographic and theological lines to come to good governance decisions.
But the Bishop’s proposal of no new elections would change that drastically. Removing 15 US bishops (14 plus Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, who recently announced her retirement) would give the WCA-aligned bishops in the USA (along with Central Conference conservative bishops who might vote with them on some issues) a slim majority. This is significant because in 2016, the power to kick out any bishop, no matter their regional accountability through the colleges, was changed to be a majority vote of the whole council. By reducing the number of bishops on that council by 15, we for the first time give a slim majority to a single group (the Traditionalists, buoyed by the Central Conference bishops, most of which are more conservative) to censure and remove any progressive or centrist bishop they wanted. And first on that list would be Bishop Karen Oliveto, whose removal would leave the West with even less representation than before (down from 5 bishops…to 1).
For the true conservatives on our delegations and bishop’s seats, this should be a cause for concern, even though the stick is pointed at progressives and moderates. The federalism of United Methodism will be unbalanced if you let the tyranny of the majority be unmoored from collegiality and consensus-building. To move accountability further from what Wesley proposed and practiced is as un-Methodist as we could get. We’ve seen this corrosive effect on the US Congress, and to see it at the top of the United Methodist Church’s executive branch would be detrimental to any shape of the church moving forward.
Back to the numbers: how many bishops do we need?
The Northern Illinois delegation includes in their analysis letter an encouragement to reduce the number of bishops by one per jurisdiction (a reduction of 5 bishops instead of 15) and an encouragement for local decision-making. Quote:
At the 85% apportionment payment rate, the US jurisdictions could elect 10 bishops and reserve our high $14.1 million reserve level until 2024. 10 elections could be achieved by reducing the number of episcopal bishops by 5, one per jurisdiction…
If resources are present for more than zero elections, how many bishops is the right number? We encourage jurisdictions to think about the missional needs for leadership through these moments of the church, and not default to electing the same number we have now without some reflection. This requires jurisdictional conferences to develop a new capacity for evaluating missional needs, how episcopal leadership functions in our denomination, evaluation of the number of episcopal areas into the future and other considerations.
It turns out there IS legislation to accomplish the latter.
Since 2016, the Jurisdictional Study Committee has been hard at work determining how many bishops are needed for each jurisdiction, in order to replace the arbitrary formula of one bishop per 300,000 Methodists, in place since 1992. They came up with a way for jurisdictions to determine their own number of bishops, but any bishops over a certain number would be paid for by the jurisdictions themselves. So that legislation, discerned over 4 years, would effect a reduction in bishops on par with the call above, and in line with a timeline that avoids insolvency.
It’s good legislation: take a read of it here. Its passage would allow The UMC to reduce the number of bishops and retain missional decision-making until the 2024 General Conference.
(Full disclosure: I’m the clergy delegate from the Western Jurisdiction on the 16 member Jurisdictional Study Committee)
The elected delegations must save the Episcopacy from itself.
My hope is that the jurisdictional delegations stand firm in support of the Episcopacy and reject the “no new elections” approach. The Bishops claim it is a grassroots movement, but the truth is that neither GCFA, jurisdictions, or annual conferences have called for this action: it is being shepherded by a small group of bishops. A few cranks and caucus group employees writing letters for years aren’t the grassroots, folks!
Reducing all jurisdictions by one, instead of electing none, would address the solvency problem, and passing the Jurisdictional Study Committee’s legislation (whenever the next General Conference is) would allow future missional decision-making to be made by the jurisdictions instead of top-down by the bishops or arbitrarily by a formula.
Dear delegates, this is not a done deal, or an irrevocable solution. It is a solvable problem that we’ve known about and studied for four years. A crisis of swirling pandemics is a time for cool-headed decisions, not knee-jerk reactions, or willful ignorance of the forces (GCFA’s austerity budget) that led us to this decision.
The choice is in the jurisdiction’s hands, not the bishops and not General Conference. May yours be wise to its task to discern, not roll over, on the decisions ahead.
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* Updated February 16th from “small number of bishops” to “Council of Bishops” because it was reported to be a vote by the full Council, not merely a task force recommendation.