- The board of The United Methodist Church’s finance agency approved a monthly stipend for 16 active bishops who have served or are serving more than one episcopal area.
- The pay bump comes amid COVID-caused disruptions that have led some bishops to retire before new bishops are elected.
- Retired bishops who are serving in interim roles receive compensation in a different way.
- The board also heard about episcopal area changes resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
United Methodist bishops who have taken on additional work in this time of pandemic-caused disruptions are about to receive what amounts to a bonus.
By a voice vote June 24, the General Council on Finance and Administration board approved monthly stipends for the 16 active bishops who have stepped up to lead more than one episcopal area since January 2021 as some bishops retired or took medical leave.
In addition to their regular salary, 15 U.S. bishops will receive $1,500 a month for their extra work and a bishop in the Philippines will receive $750 a month. The variation is because of different salary structures in each region. Each stipend represents 11% of each bishop’s monthly compensation.
The stipends are retroactive to the start of when each bishop began their additional assignment and only applicable for the months they have served or will serve until December this year.
“The GCFA board wishes to recognize the service and sacrifice these dedicated clergy have made, answering the call of the church selflessly,” said the Rev. Sheila B. Ahler, a board member from the North Carolina Conference, in a statement after the online meeting. She presented the stipend recommendation on behalf of the board’s General Agency and Episcopal Matters committee.
Up until recently, the denomination’s Episcopal Fund — which supports the work of bishops — has been in danger of running out of money. However, both increased giving as well as greatly reduced spending has helped shore up the fund. Having fewer active bishops over the past year has resulted in cumulative cost savings of about $3.1 million.
The stipends will reduce those savings by about $345,000 — or 11% of the total savings, according to General Council on Finance and Administration calculations.
Four retired bishops also have stepped up to fill episcopal vacancies since 2020. The denomination already has a policy of using the Episcopal Fund to pay the difference between a retired bishop’s pension amount and an active bishop’s current salary level when retirees serve interim roles. The retired interim bishops are receiving an average of $8,500 a month. For that reason, these retired bishops will not receive the additional stipends.
All active United Methodists bishops are assigned to different episcopal areas that each contain one or more annual conferences — church geographical bodies that hold meetings at least yearly. For a variety of reasons, many episcopal areas include multiple annual conferences.
The active bishops who will receive the stipends have served or are currently serving more than one episcopal area, which GCFA staff say is a bigger responsibility.
“These bishops have essentially taken on an additional full-time job,” said Dana Joki, the finance agency’s director of episcopal services. “They’re taking on a full episcopal area, in addition to their current episcopal-area responsibilities.”
GCFA staff researched what kind of bonuses other organizations pay when executives take on additional senior roles. Usually, such bonuses are 10% of that executive’s salary, Joki said.
She said GCFA staff suggested the stipends be 11% of a bishop’s salary because that would result in a “nice round number” to use on a monthly basis.
The board’s vote for the stipends was not unanimous.
The Rev. Anthony Tang, a board member from the Desert Southwest Conference, was the sole vote against the recommendation. He raised concerns that additional stipends would create an unhealthy precedent and unrealistic expectations.
“I believe bishops are salaried employees in some of the most sought-after jobs, who are some of the highest-paid pastors in our connection,” he said. “And as a matter of justice and equity, why would we advocate for the giving of stipends to some of the most powerful people in our system, without any review of metrics met or accomplishments fulfilled?”
Other board members observed that these are unusual times.
Usually, bishops retire and new bishops are elected every four years after General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, meets.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the delay of General Conference, now scheduled for 2024, as well as new bishop elections.
Last year, 11 U.S. bishops who initially postponed their retirements after General Conference’s first delay in 2020 stepped down because they were taking on new roles with the Council of Bishops or they were exceeding the denomination’s mandated retirement age. An additional two bishops took medical leave last year.
To continue episcopal coverage where the retirees served, 14 active U.S. bishops have since taken on expanded assignments. Another active bishop in the U.S. and an active bishop in the Philippines also stepped up to cover for their colleagues on temporary leave.
Bishop Mike McKee, board president, said none of the bishops serving double duty sought more pay.
He also explained how the current situation developed. Normally, retired bishops fill in whenever a vacancy occurs in an episcopal area. However, not enough retirees wanted to fill the vacancies that have occurred because of the delay in elections. That has left active bishops to take up the added workloads.
“In fact, if these bishops say, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ we are up against a wall — just to be blunt,” McKee said. “It has been much more difficult than we expected.”
McKee leads the North Texas Conference and has not taken on an additional episcopal area, so he will not receive a stipend. As board president, he also did not vote on the stipends recommendation.
The unusual situation of bishops serving multiple episcopal areas, like the stipends, is expected to conclude by year’s end. The Judicial Council, the denomination’s top court, has ruled that U.S. jurisdictional conferences can elect new bishops this year. The Council of Bishops has scheduled those elections for Nov. 2-5 this year. Newly elected bishops take office on Jan. 1. The Philippines Central Conference also plans to elect three new bishops at a special session on Nov. 24-26.
However, during the meeting, board members heard about a bishop taking on an additional assignment whose timeline is more uncertain.
On April 30, United Methodists in the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference voted to move the Ukraine-Moldova Provisional Annual Conference from the Eurasia Episcopal Area to the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area. The change results from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The central conference voters moved the Ukraine-Moldova Annual Conference from a bishop based in Moscow to a bishop based in Copenhagen, Denmark. The move was effective immediately but temporary, lasting at least until the central conference’s next regular session but potentially until the invasion ends.
Per Endre Bjørnevik, chair of the board’s Connectional Outreach Committee and a member from Norway, urged that fellow board members consider adding to the pay of Bishop Christian Alsted, the Copenhagen-based leader whose area now includes United Methodists in Ukraine and Moldova.
“Now his area includes a war zone,” Bjørnevik said. “That is quite challenging, I think.”
Fellow board member Ahler said the General Agency and Episcopal Matters committee would be happy to explore that possibility.
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