There is no hiding the fact that many United Methodists are disappointed in many of the U.S. bishops who have led the church since its inception in 1968. These bishops have presided over a denomination in the U.S. where church membership has gone from over 11 million to now fewer than 7 million, where average worship attendance has fallen by over 25 percent in just the last two decades, and where dramatic financial cuts are being made to budgets at every level of the church.
U.S. bishops have also presided over and some have contributed to a long and bitter dispute that has surely exacerbated the decline in membership, the dramatic plunge in average worship attendance, and the church’s growing financial crisis. But for many United Methodists, whether in Africa, Eurasia, the Philippines or the U.S., the greatest disappointment in some U.S. bishops stems from their inability or outright refusal to uphold the church’s teachings and maintain the good order of the church. With some justification they hold mostly U.S. bishops responsible for the decline and dysfunction of the church.
Consequently, as many United Methodists contemplate a new Methodist movement, they are skeptical, even cynical, about a church that would include bishops in its governing structure.
And yet, the office of a bishop has been a part of the church since its earliest history. In his First Letter to Timothy and in his Letter to Titus, the Apostle Paul sets forth the qualifications of a bishop (from the Greek word episkopos) of a local church or a community of churches. By the second century, the role of a bishop becomes more clearly defined in the writings of the early church fathers (many bishops among them) who promoted and defended the faith, risked their lives for it, and in some cases were even martyred for their steadfast witness to Christ as Lord and Savior.
For both good and ill, bishops were powerful figures in the medieval church. When the Church of England parted ways with the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, the office of bishop was retained, and it continues to be an important office in churches belonging to the Anglican Communion to this day.
As an Anglican priest all his life, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, respected the office of the bishop even though he sometimes had contentious relationships with some individuals elevated to it. When he sent Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to America to lead the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church, he appointed them as superintendents of the denomination. However, it was not long before Methodist clergy and laity began referring to them as Bishop Asbury and Bishop Coke, and so from very early in its history the office of bishop became part of the Methodist movement in America.
In its proposed “Book of Doctrines and Discipline” the Wesleyan Covenant Association calls for continuing this important leadership office that it believes is rooted in Scripture and the traditions of the church universal (“Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” paragraphs 600 – 615). However, it also clearly recognizes few if any local churches, clergy, and laity planning to join a new Methodist movement will have any interest in reconstituting an episcopacy modeled on The United Methodist Church. So while it does include an episcopacy in its governing structure, it also includes a number of critical safeguards that would keep bishops accountable to their well-defined roles (see paragraph 608). These would include, but not be limited to the following:
- All bishops would be accountable to a General Committee on Episcopacy (paragraph 610) composed of an equal number of clergy and laity. This body, rather than a coterie of episcopal colleagues, would have responsibility for handling complaints brought against a bishop.
- A bishop’s total years of service could not exceed twelve years (paragraph 605). He or she, after serving twelve years, would return to service in the local church or some other area of ministry. “A former bishop in good standing could receive the title “bishop emeritus,” but only active bishops would serve on the Council of Bishops.
- Bishops would not serve as chairpersons of general church administrative committees. Their principal tasks would be “communicating and defending the cause of Christ and the doctrines of the church,” partnering with the annual conferences they serve to envision the best ways to fulfill the church’s mission, and ordaining and deploying clergy for service in local churches and extension ministries (see paragraph 608 for complete listing of a bishop’s proposed role).
Bishops would be assisted and joined in their oversight of a new church by presiding elders (paragraph 614 – 616) and a connectional operating officer (paragraph 613).
Presiding elders would be “persons who serve a local church [themselves] or are in retired relationship.” They would preside over districts within annual conferences consisting of 20-30 local churches. In addition to other duties, their principal responsibilities would be to serve as the “chief missional strategist of the district, supervise the clergy of the district, and play a pivotal role in the deployment of clergy.”
The connectional operating officer would “bear responsibility for the fruitful and accountable functioning of the general church,” and therefore “provide oversight to all general church staff.” He or she would be “directly answerable to the Council of Bishops.” The individual would be selected by the Council and would have to be “approved by the General Committee on Episcopacy.” He or she would essentially serve as a chief operating officer for a small and nimble general church structure focused on serving local congregations around the world.
Fair or unfair, bishops in particular will have to work hard to overcome the skepticism many United Methodists now have regarding their office. They can do so by adhering to the role and duties of a bishop as defined by a new church. By that same token clergy and laity will need to check their skepticism, and pray for, support, and sustain bishops in their roles. They will need to remind themselves that those elected to serve as bishops in a new Methodist movement will have joined that movement for the same reasons they did. Therefore, their bishops will share their commitment to proclaiming the Gospel and promoting and defending the good order of a new church. Clergy and laity could also find assurance in key provisions limiting the power of episcopal leaders and that hold them accountable for fulfilling their duties.
The history of the church is replete with stories of fruitfulness and growth when dedicated, faithful, and honorable leaders partner together with clergy and laity to make disciples of all nations. The WCA believes God will guide and bless a church and its leaders that works to mitigate the power of sin inherent in any human institution and continually works to build a church deeply committed to the great commission.
By Walter Fenton
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.