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COMMENTARY: ‘Set aside’ all UM bishops for conference leadership Joe Whittemore, Nov 29, 2011
By Joe M. Whittemore Special Contributor
The recently announced Connectional Table/Interim Operations Team legislation for the 2012 General Conference amounts to turning the general church over to the bishops. Just the opposite is critical! Our episcopal leaders should be devoted almost exclusively to their annual conferences. Let’s restructure our agencies to focus on assisting the annual conferences in building vital congregations, and devote our bishops to leading their annual conferences.
The job of the Council of Bishops (COB) is to support the Book of Discipline and carry out the polity and mandates established by the General Conference, not to write the Book of Discipline. (The bishops do not vote or have voice at General Conference). The United Methodist Church has never been willing to give the COB authority to run the church.
Several years ago, the COB proposed that one bishop, not assigned to an episcopal area, be set aside to handle the affairs of the COB including the evaluation and accountability of individual bishops. The idea did not gain traction before or during the 2008 General Conference.
Affirmation #2 of the Aug. 2, 2011, Interim Operations Team (IOT) report called for the adoption of performance standards for bishops. Jurisdictional committees on episcopacy would implement annual assessments. To support this request the report then called for a bishop without residential assignment to guide the UMC, support and assist residential bishops, and chair the body that could hire and fire a new 15-member board of directors for the church that would control the vast majority of all net assets other than pension funds.
Our denomination has never been willing to “turn things over to the bishops.” Our culture is well acknowledged in the operational assessment project done by Apex, which states “the church has the opportunity to strengthen its existing leadership structures without altering power or authority (emphasis added). . . . This strengthening could be achieved through renewal of purpose, goals and role clarity, better accountability, courageous leadership and better capabilities to support leadership. . . .”
The 2010 Call to Action report listed five key recommendations, one of which was to “reform the COB, with the active bishops assuming responsibility for improving results in attendance, professions of faith, baptisms, participation in servant/mission ministries, benevolent giving . . . and establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.”
The Call to Action report departed from our polity and wishfully said “a unified COB will institute and maintain an effective executive management operating function that strategically and practically aligns the resources of the general church in order to focus on increased local church vitality.” Its duties would include annually naming current realities, setting performance objectives, and developing a stronger sense of connection by aligning the work of the COB with general agencies and denominational initiatives/programs.
The Apex research called for strengthening “without altering power or authority,” but the final IOT recommendations ended by putting power in the hands of a small, 15-member group (the board of the Center for Connectional Missions and Ministry) subject to considerable influence by the set-side bishop and the COB generally. And the IOT called for the COB to institute and maintain an effective executive management operating function that strategically and practically aligns the resources of the general church. In other words, let the COB take over and operate the church, agencies, budgets, everything!
Is the best plan to hand the bishops this responsibility and take one of their number to be the executive decision-maker? For decades, one major concern of conference committees on episcopacy has been the huge amount of time bishops are required to devote to general church assignments. All bishops should be “set-aside” to lead, motivate and challenge our clergy. They can provide spiritual guidance for laity and clergy. Indeed, each must be held accountable for the measured progress of the annual conference to which he/she is assigned.
A lay executive of the Council of Bishops to facilitate the accountability of individual bishops may be to the benefit of the denomination. An experienced, strong executive who is not clergy may bring a fresh and reasonable approach. Envision the changes we could quickly experience if that lay executive had the authority to recommend to the College of Bishops and the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy the removal (or placing on leave) of the ineffective or non-responsive episcopal leader as currently provided in paragraphs 16.5, 408.3 and 410.1 of the Book of Discipline.
To adopt the recommendations of the IOT, we would be interpreting the Apex research to indicate that the COB should have huge political, budgeting and organizational power and authority, and that action would alter our polity.
Many believe the COB does not function well. Why put more authority there? With few exceptions our U.S. annual conferences are dying. If our bishops are focused on their annual conferences with reasonable performance standards, the likelihood of success would be significantly increased. But diluting them with the operation of the entire church is folly.
Yes, we desperately require restructure and reorganization of our general church to focus on the development of vital congregations and leadership. The starting place is in devoting all our bishops to the ministry and mission of their annual conferences and evaluating in transparent ways the fruits of their ministries. The bishops have already identified how this should be done. Let’s set aside all our bishops for their most important ministry: leading the annual conferences and developing vital congregations.
Mr. Whittemore is a member of the Connectional Table from the North Georgia Conference where he has served as Conference Lay Leader. He also is a past chair of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy. He will be a delegate to his sixth General Conference next year.