The unprecedented delay of the General Conference has created an opportunity to include laity and clergy in selecting and empowering new leadership when the church really needs fresh perspectives to combat COVID-19, racism, and threats to American democracy…Sadly, we aren’t doing that.
But we still could.
Put on your long socks, because we get really into the weeds here. There’s a summary 2/3 of the way down if you want to scroll to it.
The Chain of Events to Three Choice Points
The United Methodist Church is a democratic, representative church. We elect individuals to lead on our behalf. When the 2020 General Conference got rescheduled to the end of August 2022, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it created a critical juncture for the bishops: would they use their sole superpower–to convene–to guide lay and clergy leaders to use their voices and votes to guide The UMC?
It turns out the answer is no.
After the deferred General Conference was announced (a decision by a committee of clergy and laity), the bishops called for a Special General Conference session, one day only, to approve a way to vote by mail on a series of legislative proposals. The vast majority of these items deal with bishops’ needs for retirement, bishops’ needs for governing annual conferences, bishops’ needs to force out clergy, and bishops’ accountability committee membership. Yep, it’s a lot of stuff about bishops (and budgets) at a special GC called by the bishops! More on this in a few minutes.
But piggybacking on this special session–indeed, the primary reason for the special session–is it’s expected that jurisdictional (regional) colleges of bishops will call for special jurisdictional sessions this July to implement some of these legislative items. Here’s the expected agenda:
- Retire bishops who have reached the mandatory age for retirement
- Announce coverage of areas due to the reduction of active bishops
- Determine if or how many bishops will be elected in each Jurisdiction
Let’s walk through each of these three items because, as you’ll see, there’s a good way and a wrong way to do each of these.
Reducing active bishops by 45%…in about a year!
The number one reason for the special jurisdictional sessions is to retire the active jurisdictional bishops who have reached the age of mandatory retirement (Central Conference bishops have a different set of rules, so they don’t have to retire on this schedule). They can only be retired at jurisdictional sessions, with additional powers enabled by the 12 petitions from the Special GC.
So, retire the bishops and elect new ones, right?
Wrong. The Council of Bishops claims that only the Jurisdictional Conferences that follow the General Conferences are when new bishops can be elected–not at special sessions. That doesn’t seem to sync with my reading of ¶407 and ¶521, but my reading doesn’t matter because I’m not a bishop writing the agenda (the “call”) for these sessions. The end result is that no new bishops are being considered to be elected until Fall 2022. Thus, come the end of 2021, 15 bishops’ positions will be vacant.
But wait! There’s more! If the Special General Conference in May passes Legislation #5, it would move up the mandatory retirement date for five bishops who reach the mandatory age trigger by the Jurisdictional Conferences in Fall 2022. So instead of those five bishops serving until September 2024, as expected, they would retire by roughly the end of 2022. This forces five bishops to retire early, though they will be retiring at a regular jurisdictional session when their replacements could be immediately elected.
So that’s 20 bishops retiring in about 12-16 months of each other. It is anticipated that the Council of Bishops for the July 2021 Special Jurisdictional Conferences will encourage delegations to vote on not filling most of these positions that become available in 2021 and 2022. More on that in a few minutes.
Here’s the end result of this choice point to not call for new elections: In 2022, The United Methodist Church globally will be making decisions and offering spiritual leadership without one-third of their leadership at a time when we really need leadership to offer well-considered inspiration and decision-making to combat the swirling pandemics around us.
Assigning Coverage: Taxation without Representation
The second item on the agenda is assigning coverage. When the 15 bishops retire, their episcopal areas will need leadership, so these special jurisdictional sessions will arrange for coverage. There are precedents for what this might look like:
- A nearby active bishop absorbs that episcopal area, so they would serve two annual conferences as their new expanded episcopal area. This already happens in some jurisdictions, particularly the West, and is being anticipated in the Northeastern Jurisdiction already.
- Several active bishops could take on joint oversight of an episcopal area. For example, when a Bishop resigned suddenly in the South Central Jurisdiction, one neighboring bishop did appointments, one did administration, and one did General Church obligations until a new election could be held. They split up the load.
- A retired bishop can come on and oversee an episcopal area. This happened this last year when Bishop Brown took on oversight of the episcopal area in Africa left vacant by Bishop Yambasu’s tragic passing.
There are three problems with this agenda item.
First, only active, non-retired bishops can vote at the Council of Bishops, according to an official inquiry (despite what para 409 says). So no matter which scenario above, those 15 seats won’t be replaced with voting members, reducing the number of voting members by different amounts. The West will lose 60% of its votes while the South will lose less than a third.
Second, despite the loss in leadership, the Episcopal Fund apportionment will continue at the same level. Indeed, item #7&8 at the Special GC will increase the apportionment for some ACs that voted to allocate the GCFA’s reduced apportionment advised in the summer of 2020. So 15 bishops’ worth of salaries (minus coverage expenses) will pile up in an account in Nashville while the local churches are struggling.
To recap these two items, conferences will continue to pay apportionments for bishops that are not even serving with a vote, and if they are led by retired bishops, entire annual conferences will not have a voting member at the table of the Council of Bishops. The reduction of bishops, in effect, leads to taxation without representation, as jurisdictions and annual conferences pay apportionments without corresponding voting members at the tables to which other annual conferences are due. While it has never been fully proportional in representation, this is a jarring effect in a very short time!
Third and finally, these decisions about who serves where are not made by the Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy (as is the case in regular years); they are interim appointments made by the jurisdictional college of bishops (that’s why it says “announce” in the call). The end result is, again, clergy and laity are cut out of decisions when it comes to our leadership.
Denying elections means eliminating bishops’ seats by default
As loyal readers will know, we debated this topic about the bishops not wanting to fill the retirees’ seats out of (misplaced) concern for the Episcopal Fund. They said over and over it was a decision that was going to be decided by the Jurisdictional delegates.
However, with this deferral and the jurisdictional special sessions, it means that The United Methodist Church will be with 15 fewer bishops for all of 2022. While, yes, delegates will get the ultimate decision whether to fill these seats at the end of 2022, the bishops have won this round by gaining an entire year of reduced oversight, which they can point to in order to encourage keeping the future leadership at that level. When it comes to 2022, these will be labeled “additional bishops” during a time of reduced funding: an uphill battle, indeed.
So the third agenda item of these special jurisdictional sessions is to determine “if or how many bishops will be elected in each Jurisdiction.” This is an aspirational not actual question: jurisdictional conferences cannot bind future jurisdictional conferences to their hopes. If the special session in July 2021 votes to not replace two episcopal areas, the Fall 2022 regular session can change their minds since it is under their Discipline-mandated allocation. But, dear reader, the purpose of this isn’t further jurisdictional discernment: it’s to make the case to General Conference to remove these positions at the 2022 General Conference. Thus, it won’t be a vote by the jurisdictional delegations, as promised…it will solely be a vote by the general conference delegates.
One more point: the jurisdictional colleges of bishops are expected to force a vote by Jurisdictional delegates of how many bishops seats to be filled–and they want the decision in July 2021, without prior study or missional reflection as to their needs. Jurisdictions like the SCJ have previously spent 1-3 years deciding how to reduce by one bishop, let alone 3-5 reductions. To accelerate that process with hand-picked ad hoc leaders is hugely problematic and not a healthy process at all–rather, quite heavy-handed and premature. Another choice point.
TL;DR – Summary
So you see when the dust settles, here’s what all that arcane polity and dates mean:
- At least twenty bishops will be retiring from September 2021 to December 2022, 20 of the 44 bishops in The USA. That’s 45% of the bishops in The USA!
- The UMC will operate with 15 fewer bishops for all of 2022. Because the assignments of coverage for these retirees’ areas will be interim, they will be done by the colleges of bishops and not the committees on episcopacy, cutting lay and clergy out of the decisions for their own leadership.
- The Council of Bishops will force a vote by Jurisdictional delegates of how many bishops seats to be filled in 2022–in July 2021, without prior study or missional reflection.
- All jurisdictions will continue to pay the apportioned amounts (for some, higher than they budgeted in 2021) to the Episcopal Fund for 2021 and 2022, regardless of how many fewer bishops they actually have in their jurisdictions.
- No new bishops will begin to serve until 2023.
There is a narrative above that the only power and fixes are found at the general church level: the bishops and General Conference. But that’s not how it is in our polity: like States Rights in United States federalism, jurisdictions have decision-making authority that is being swept aside.
It doesn’t have to be this way. These choice points can be different, it isn’t too late, and here’s what I would recommend instead.
- Hold elections for some of the retiring positions anyway. The Judicial Council case on the election of Bishop Karen Oliveto shows that the JC won’t nullify episcopal elections. Bishops should include this in the call and allow the jurisdictional delegations to make these decisions of how many and who. As the Northern Illinois conference has shown, if each jurisdiction goes down by one bishop, it will right the Episcopal Fund ship, and jurisdictions don’t have to go down by such significant leadership (and they retain voting rights). Then they could not fill the 2022 retirees…after more discernment.
- To reduce the negative impact on the Episcopal Fund, bishops can pass a resolution calling for a reduction of their own salaries (or office expenses) rather than the elimination of more bishops’ seats. While the GCFA board sets the bishops’ salaries, not the bishops themselves, if the bishops passed a resolution supporting it, you bet the GCFA would respond. Some scenarios can lead to $1m a year in savings, cutting the current deficit spending rate by a third or a half. But GCFA won’t act unless the bishops make this call first.
- Encourage bishops to make nominations and allow leadership elections for their regions’ jurisdictional delegations to serve in the jurisdictional structures, and fill vacancies or offer new jurisdictional nominations at general church boards and agencies as well. Again: make the Judicial Council tell us we can’t. We need fresh leadership at our representative agencies as well.
- Start a jurisdictional leadership study committee right now, convened and led by laity and clergy, to do the next year’s work of missional discernment of episcopal areas and leadership. Hot tip: The Jurisdictional Study Committee, which has studied this question for four years, has three members in each jurisdiction—use them as local experts on this topic! Let the choice be your reasoned choice, not one out of fear or expedience. Even if regions decide to reduce episcopal leadership significantly, it will be a result of study closest to the context.
We ask a lot out of our bishops, and they face criticism at every turn. I don’t envy their positions and we are called to pray for them regularly. However, this article shows we need fresh leadership in our bishops’ seats alongside the steady, practiced hands. For the current leaders to deny new leadership and lay/clergy participation in our established processes are problematic choice points indeed.
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