Bishops called to be more accountable to each other

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United Methodist bishops must be accountable not only to United Methodists in their areas but also to the full Council of Bishops, asserted the council’s new president.

Bishop Warner Brown Jr. concluded his first address as the body’s president by asking his fellow episcopal leaders to affirm the vows they took when they were consecrated as bishops. The bishops stood in unison to show their assent.

Brown, who also leads the San Francisco Area, spoke to a group that included 64 active and 43 retired bishops from around the globe. The council is meeting this week as the denomination is struggling with declining U.S. membership, deep divisions regarding homosexuality, and questions of what it means for church leaders to be accountable.

A group of United Methodists has argued that the church should split unless clergy who violate the denomination’s ban on same-gender weddings are held accountable. That includes bishops.

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Bishop Warner Brown Jr., president of the Council of Bishops, presides over Communion at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. Photo by Holly McCray.

Holding each other accountable

Brown offered a broad understanding of how bishops should work together, including “not a looking over one another’s shoulder to second guess” each other.

“It is an accountability focused on the mission of the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” he said. “Being mutually accountable requires intentional collaboration. We will need to stay engaged with one another long enough to trust each other.”

For years, bishops have discussed how they can hold each other accountable for effectiveness in ministry. Many of those discussions have focused on how they can help each other increase the number of vital United Methodist congregations and nurture both love of God and love of neighbor.

Before the 2012 General Conference, the council approved a motion to have its executive committee develop measures for accountability.

Charlotte (North Carolina) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, who leads the council's accountability task force, gave the bishops an update Monday afternoon on that work. He invited bishops to send their input on what should be part of a code of conduct. To start the conversation, Goodpaster shared with small groups some common courtesies that bishops can agree to follow, such as responding to email and calls promptly.

"We realize this is low-hanging fruit," Goodpaster said. "How do we go deeper? And then, what happens when someone does not do what we wrote down? What are the consequences?"

The effort remains a work in progress.

In his address, Brown said his role as president is “to help us be an effective leadership organization.”

“The challenge is for us to come together on that which we agree is most important and lead together in a cooperative way,” he said. “In other words, we must speak as pastors to the church and keep the Wesleyan spirit.”

Accountability and sexuality debate

Brown’s address also came almost a year after the council’s last meeting when a majority of active bishops requested a formal complaint be filed against retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert after he officiated at a same-gender blessing in violation of church law.

Talbert stood with all other bishops to reaffirm his vows. He and Brown are both part of the Western Jurisdiction, which is now handling the complaint. Before his retirement, Talbert led the California-Nevada Conference as Brown does now.

Talbert said Brown gave a good address, and added that he believes he has personally lived "an accountable life."

The dispute remains a difficult one for bishops. After lunch, the bishops convened in a closed-door session to discuss human sexuality.

Like the church members they lead, the bishops have differing perspectives on homosexuality and what the Bible says about it. No matter their stance, bishops are tasked with providing “leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation and unity within the Church.”

Brown cited a survey by United Methodist Communications that found church members overwhelmingly do not want a split.

He told his fellow bishops that as leaders of a church as “diverse as ours, we need to let people know we hear them.” That includes people in the majority and the minority, he said.

Other bishops praise speech

Retired Bishop Violet Fisher said Brown delivered a powerful message the bishops need “right now.”

Zimbabwe Area Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa agreed.

“What the church is facing right now is that we need leaders of encouragement, leaders who know leadership means addressing very hard issues, not evading them,” Nhiwatiwa said. He was hopeful Brown could provide that kind of leadership.

San Antonio Area Bishop James E. Dorff said he was particularly moved by Brown’s request that bishops reaffirm their commitment “because that is where our accountability lies.”

As his fellow bishops stood, Brown prayed over them.

“Gracious God, look in mercy on these your servants,” he said. “Replenish them with holiness and life, and fill them with the power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, fill us, so that both by word and by deed we may serve you faithfully and joyously.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected] .

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