United Methodist bishops are asked to use their one unique superpower—to convene—to allow elected delegates to gather and do their job without restrictions.
A few years back, I heard a speech by a bishop on the separation of powers in United Methodism: General Conference writes the polity, Bishops & General Agencies put the polity into practice, and the Judicial Council interprets the polity and the practices. Each wing has its own powers and responsibilities, and restrictions.
This bishop said that many of the powers of the episcopacy are limited or misunderstood. The power of the appointment is unique, yes, but they can’t refuse to appoint someone without the consent of the clergy’s peers. The ability to nominate to general, jurisdictional, or annual conference leadership is unique, yes, but those have to be approved by jurisdictional or annual conferences.
However, the bishops did have one superpower that resides nowhere else: to convene. Bishops can schedule and set into motion official business meetings of the church, such as General, Jurisdictional, and Annual conferences. They can also call together people within or across lines to accomplish something together, such as when Bishop John Yambasu convened what would become the Protocol.
So it is an odd season of the church when the bishops refuse to use their one unique superpower in service of the church. As they meet virtually for their last chance to lead The United Methodist Church before a long, devastating hollowing-out year ahead, read on for why they are called to convene.
The Ask: Convene Jurisdictional Conferences without Restrictions
I’m not a fan of reading a long letter before you get to the request, so here’s what is needed:
- The Council of Bishops is asked to convene regular Jurisdictional Conferences in Fall 2021 with full authority to the delegates to elect new episcopal and nominated leadership and other jurisdictional actions.
- If the Council of Bishops fails to convene, then individual Colleges of Bishops are called to immediately announce they are convening special sessions of Jurisdictional Conferences in Fall 2021 with full authority to the delegates to elect new episcopal and nominated leadership and other jurisdictional actions.
- That’s it.
It’s a simple ask to replace a convoluted Special GC ask. Let’s talk about why and when.
A Month delay has borne fruit
In March 2021, the Council of Bishops backed off their proposal for a Special General Conference and VERY limited Jurisdictional Conferences and set a month for listening sessions before this week’s conference. While not all bishops held such things or consulted their delegations, some delegates have had a month to consult legal authorities, strategize, and make their elected voices heard.
At the time, this blog responded:
I’m grateful the bishops have chosen to commit to the chance to collaborate after a long season of executive actions, and I’m hopeful our delegations participate and work across AC boundaries to remember who we are called to be.
But … we need to figure out how to make these things happen. We cannot sit in aspirations and relegate the implementation to the bishops: we have less than a month to work across delegations to have common process suggestions like “we must do X to get to Y.” We can work on our “Why” but we need to conclude with a robust “How.”
I’m happy to say an outcome and way to get there have emerged. So let’s take a look at the WHY and the robust HOW that emerged in our month.
The Why: Convening for the sake of Christian Conferencing
The church yearns for visionary leaders who can help us envision a better, safer place — and guide us there under the power of God’s Spirit. Bishops are called to be these strategic leaders, those big picture visionaries who inspire and strategize, who lead us through adaptations during transitions that threaten the future (¶ 401.c). As “shepherds of the church,” would they have the “people called United Methodists” stuck in a dried-up pasture that is being plowed beneath our feet — or would they lead us to the higher ground where grass grows and water can quench thirst for everyone?
The bishops’ superpower is to convene, remember? We will continue to be stuck unless we are allowed to convene—and the only entity with the power to convene is the Council of Bishops (and jurisdictional colleges of bishops in a more limited fashion). The delegates’ statement concludes:
Although the Discipline is “locked” until the General Conference meets — and it’s not guaranteed that global gathering will be possible even in summer 2022 — we can “unlock” the potential that is already among us. There are extraordinary gifts and graces available throughout the connection. As some of the faithful retire and step down from positions, many stand ready to take up the mantle of leadership as bishops and agency board members.
So the why is very on-point: we need to graciously exit our overextended leadership and bring in new leaders who understand the church at the local level (haha, I kid: you know new bishops will be DSes, but I digress…).
Finally, but NOT LEAST OF ALL, is that the Christian Conferencing website has 5 articles by a former Judicial Council member who has done the work to show that special and regular jurisdictional conferences can meet before General Conference, as opposed to the advice the Council is currently practicing. Take a read.
The When: before it’s too late
Um…this decision needs to be soon. There have been several news stories that have indicated the water is really, really bad in United Methodism right now.
- End-of-year apportionment payments for 2020 indicate many churches withheld apportionments from their annual conferences, stealing significant money from the conferences’ ability to fund missions and ministries.
- A megachurch in North Georgia and a megachurch in Greater New Jersey have refused or contested appointment changes for their pastors.
- Licenced Local Pastors have refused to continue on courses of study or other requirements because they plan to join the Global Methodist Church. When they are exited for failing to keep the minimum standards, they claim persecution instead of personal responsibility.
- An interim bishop in a progressive annual conference has refused to practice holding in abeyance complaints againt LGBTQ+ Inclusion.
- Another bishop is misusing abeyance as a weapon to silence clergy.
- Every day, more and more bishops serve beyond their mandatory retirement age.
And these are just the public events we know about! This brackish water, unsuitable for new life, is rising, and the bishops are in danger of over-extending their already stressed leadership.
The Council of Bishops have an opportunity to turn back the tide. Will they?
Make the Call, Plan for Fall
The magic of the gathering comes from this aspect of United Methodism: Jurisdictional gatherings for discernment of bishops and consideration of leadership nominees are best done in-person. While the Fall likely will have another wave of COVID, a few of the days reserved for the now-rescheduled 2021 General Conference might still be available for regional gatherings of folks before the COVID Fall 2.0 is in full swing. An entire summer of vaccine eligibility open to every American (though supplies are tight in some places right now) will further bolster things.
As far as exact timing in the Fall, I would suggest consulting with the young people—whose consultation became a rudimentary notification earlier this year—to see when best aligns with academic and work schedules of the few young people we still have left.
Give the power back
Let the people gather.
Use your power to convene, and convene us well.
All we’re asking is the right to gather with the full authority we have as delegates to participate in Christian Conferencing.
When we unstick the regions of the UMC, you’ll see that free-flowing water enliven the general and local church levels too.
It’s a win-win because bishops don’t have to make any decisions or issue any opinions: you call for the gatherings without arbitrary restrictions and let the delegates take the heat for decisions.
And the Council is best to do this because if—as expected—only 2-3 of the Colleges do, then that churns up the water again for other regions who wonder why they don’t get to do the same things.
That power is yours, bishops. Use it. Convene us. Lead us in the pastoral ways you are so good at. We need you.
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