By Keith Boyette
June 18, 2021
I recently read American Saint: Francis Asbury & The Methodists, John Wigger’s 2009 biography of Methodism’s primary leader during the early decades of the United States. As I read this compelling biography, I was impressed with two observations. First, Asbury was influential because of God’s anointing and his servant’s heart. He was relentlessly focused on the mission God had entrusted to the Methodists. He loved God without reservation, and he loved his neighbors including those who were enemies and those who were far from God. He did not strive to be the center of attention. In fact, he rarely spoke at the early annual and General Conferences of the church. Second, Asbury’s influence was not derived from any power bestowed upon him by virtue of position. Asbury largely chose to work behind the scenes using the gift of relationship to shape and mold early Methodism in America. Hundreds of early Methodist pastors followed Asbury’s example of pouring himself out through traveling thousands of miles annually on horseback ensuring he was close to the people.
As we are on the threshold of the birth of the Global Methodist Church, people are rightly focused on the character of the episcopacy in this new movement. The Global Methodist Church during the transitional period before its convening General Conference will continue the office of bishop in the leadership of the church consistent with the New Testament model, the practice of the primitive church, and the tradition entrusted to us by almost all the Methodist bodies preceding the Global Methodist Church.
The nature and role of bishops in the Global Methodist Church is set forth in paragraphs 501-522 of the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline of the Global Methodist Church. Bishops in the transitional GM Church will be “ordained persons set apart and entrusted with the task of defending the Apostolic faith and overseeing and leading the church in its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to spread scriptural holiness across the world” (¶ 501). Significantly, the episcopal office will “keep us relentlessly focused outward toward our mission field. Our bishops must not lean on the trappings of ecclesial office but lead us from an authentic, humble, evangelistic love for God and neighbor” (¶ 501).
GM Church bishops are to be people who are “set apart for a ministry of visionary servant leadership, general oversight, and supervision in support of the Church in its mission” (¶ 502). They will be charged with guarding the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church. As servant leaders, their lives are to be characterized by personal integrity, spiritual disciplines, and the anointing and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. They are to be persons of genuine faith, upstanding moral character, and possess the gift of encouragement, a vital and renewing spirit, and an engaging vision for the church.
The general and specific duties of GM Church bishops are enumerated in ¶¶ 503-504. The primary focus of these duties is to guard, teach, and proclaim the apostolic faith as expressed in Scripture and tradition from a Wesleyan perspective. They are to lead the GM Church in its mission of witness and service in the world. They are called to be visionary leaders, building a clear and articulated missional strategy for the annual conference to which they are deployed. They are to encourage, inspire, and motivate clergy, laity, and churches to embrace and implement the vision and missional strategy of the annual conference and the GM Church.
The method of election and deployment of bishops in the GM Church will be established by its convening General Conference. The Wesleyan Covenant Association has proposed an approach to election and deployment in paragraphs 603 to 604 of its “draft Doctrines and Discipline.” The WCA proposes electing persons to a pool of episcopal candidates and then empowering annual conferences to select their bishops from that pool. And the annual conference would be responsible for its bishop’s compensation to ensure that she or he is accountable, in the first instance, to the people of the annual conference.
Many theologically conservative United Methodists believe the practice of life tenure for bishops has contributed to the lack of accountability that has exacerbated divisions in the denomination. Therefore, it is almost a certainty that GM Church bishops will not have life tenure but will serve for defined term limits determined by the church’s convening General Conference. The WCA has proposed a term not to exceed twelve years, and when bishops finish their terms, they would return to serve a local church or an extension ministry in the denomination. The vast majority of theological conservatives strongly believe a term-limited episcopacy is an important way to hold bishops accountable to the discipline of the whole church.
The WCA has proposed that the convening General Conference establish a General Committee on Episcopacy composed of laity and clergy who will resolve administrative complaints against bishops. It also calls on the conference to establish a process for the resolution of judicial complaints against them through a global committee on investigation and a trial court. It also believes the committee and the court should be composed of a geographically diverse group of clergy and laity, not other bishops.
Church history is full of examples of bishops who have served heroically and humbly overseeing the faithful in times of growth and in the darkest days of persecution. Some endured great trials and others were even martyred for the faith. Therefore, we trust God can work through frail and fallible leaders for the flourishing of His church. Personally, I am excited about an episcopacy composed of women and men who are on fire for the gospel of Jesus Christ, who are visionary, apostolic, and passionate about the mission of the GM Church, who teach and guard the Christian faith as we have received it with a focus on spreading scriptural holiness, and who motivate laity, clergy, and local churches to reach more and more individuals for Jesus Christ. Please join me in praying for God to raise up such women and men in our new movement.
Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and chair of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church (in formation). He is an elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.