Bishops’ election plans draw mixed reaction

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United Methodist bishops are no longer pushing for a hold on all U.S. episcopal elections, but church voters still have differing views on when those elections should take place.

The bishops’ decision to delay elections until 2022 — announced at the end of their spring meeting — has frustrated some General Conference delegates while winning praise from others.

Nevertheless, most delegates who spoke with United Methodist News expressed gratitude that the bishops have rescinded their original recommendation that no elections occur until 2024. The delegates are the people who ultimately vote on bishops and other denominational leadership.

“This definitely does what I was hoping for,” said David Stotts, delegate and Mississippi Conference treasurer. “Each jurisdiction will decide the number of bishops they need and then the committee on episcopacy will make the assignments.”

The Rev. Jay Williams, head of the New England Conference delegation, also commended the bishops for changing their minds. However, he added: “Elections should be held this year.”

He is part of a group of delegates who urged the bishops to convene special jurisdictional conferences this year to allow elections of new denominational leaders.

“The church yearns for fresh leadership on the Council of Bishops and agencies,” he told UM News. “As bishops and board members continue to retire and run out of energy, let’s refresh the pool of leaders by electing new ones immediately.”

Much of the difficulty faced by bishops and delegates alike centers on how to handle a situation never anticipated in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book.

Twice now, the global COVID-19 pandemic has delayed General Conference — the denomination’s lawmaking assembly that draws together lay and clergy delegates from four continents. The international gathering first scheduled for May 2020 is now set for Aug. 29-Sept. 6, 2022, in Minneapolis.

That has put a number of big decisions on hold — including a proposed split of the denomination after decades of debate over the status of LGBTQ people.

The pandemic and slow rollout of vaccines worldwide also has disrupted the usual order of church business.

Typically, General Conference meets in the spring every four years. The five jurisdictional conferences convene in July to handle the elections of U.S. bishops, agency board members and other leaders. The seven central conferences — the jurisdictions’ counterparts in Africa, Europe and the Philippines — then hold their respective elections for bishops and other leaders from their regions in the months following jurisdictional conferences.

But before General Conference can meet, more than a dozen of the 46 active U.S. bishops plan to retire or already have taken on new roles with the Council of Bishops this year. Eight central conference bishops also plan to step down, and delegates expect to elect a successor to Sierra Leone’s Bishop John Yambasu, who died last year.

Faced with shrinking financial reserves and denominational uncertainty, the Council of Bishops in November recommended delegates hold off on electing any of the retiring U.S. bishops’ successors. But the recommendation soon faced pushback from delegates across the United States as more drastic than finances warranted.

Bishops don’t have a vote at General Conference or jurisdictional and central conference sessions, but they do have authority to convene special sessions of those meetings.

As COVID-19 vaccines have become widely available in the U.S., debate has emerged about whether the Book of Discipline requires that General Conference always precede jurisdictional conferences.

The Rev. William B. Lawrence, a former president of the Judicial Council — the denomination’s top court — argues that church law has no such requirement. “Therefore, jurisdictional conferences could meet in person as soon as this summer or fall, if such assemblies are feasible in the United States under health regulations,” he wrote in a memo widely circulated among U.S. delegates.

Dave Nuckols, co-head of the Minnesota Conference delegation, echoed that view. He said the jurisdictional conferences meeting as soon as it’s safe would be the most faithful remedy to the pandemic delay because they can replenish church leadership.

Nuckols also identified another dynamic in play. After the contentious 2019 special General Conference that saw delegates strengthening bans on same-gender weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy, many U.S. annual conferences elected a different slate of delegates who oppose those bans.

“The will of the voters deserves to be heard in the jurisdictional election processes,” Nuckols said.

Ultimately, bishops called for these voters to wait. They scheduled the five jurisdictional conferences for Nov. 2-4, 2022, with central conferences to follow.

Council of Bishops President Cynthia Fierro Harvey said the council affirmed that that colleges of bishops (that is, the bishops in each jurisdiction) can call special sessions of jurisdictional conferences at any time “but not for the purposes of electing members of boards and agencies nor to elect bishops.”

Harvey, who also leads the Louisiana Conference, said the bishops came to that conclusion based on their reading of the Discipline’s Paragraph 521. That paragraph talks about when bishops may call special jurisdictional conferences to fill vacancies.

Some church leaders dispute the bishops’ interpretation of that passage. But as a practical matter, the top executives of the denomination’s 13 general agencies also support delaying electing new board members until after General Conference.

Dawn Wiggins Hare, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, spoke on behalf of the agency executives at the recent Council of Bishops meeting.

Among the problems with doing things out of the usual order, she said, is that some agencies have submitted legislation to General Conference to shrink their boards. If jurisdictions vote before General Conference acts, that raises the possibility of more people being elected than there will be available positions to fill. The current order of business also allows most new board members to receive orientation at the same time, she said.

“The entire church, in our opinion, will be benefited considerably by having experienced boards during this very disruptive time and by following a fair and equitable process for membership across the connection,” she said.

Another issue is that General Conference passes the denominational budget that determines the number of bishops. Electing bishops ahead of a new budget could further threaten financial sustainability.

In this interim time, bishops are already making plans to take on new duties and expand the areas they cover so colleagues who plan to retire can do so.

“When I look at something like this, I look at who is paying the price,” said Dr. Steve Furr, a delegate from the Alabama-West Florida Conference. Furr is among the delegates who is pleased to see a delay in bishop elections. That way, he said, delegates can use their usual rigorous process in evaluating bishop candidates. 

“I don’t often pat the bishops on the back, but I appreciate they are making the sacrifice," he said.

For now, there is broad consensus that when U.S. delegates do meet for jurisdictional conferences, they will be electing fewer bishops than the number retiring. The North Central Jurisdiction is already making plans to reduce its bishops from nine to eight.

But determining the total number of bishops to be elected remains a work in progress, Furr said. He is the chair of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy.

The Rev. Kim Ingram, head delegate from the Western North Carolina Conference and a fellow episcopacy committee member, said how bishops handle their expanded workloads in this interim time may provide some insights into how many bishops need to be elected.

She praised bishops for heeding delegates’ voices and adapting. However, she also urged more transparency in decision-making.

“When there is transparency, it builds trust,” she said. “When, for example, bishops make a decision not to hold elections and people don’t feel like they understand why and how that decision was made, it leads to doubt and distrust.”

The Rev. Sara Isbell, a delegate from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, said much of the conversation around forgoing elections has been around finances.

“But another question we should be asking ourselves is: ‘When we do elect new bishops, to what kind of church are we electing them?’” said Isbell, who is the chair of the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on Episcopacy. 

“The pressing questions about ‘how many’ bishops will be needed, and for ‘what kind’ of leadership, are in some ways dependent on how General Conference turns out.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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