Term limits for United Methodist bishops got strong support in a vote at General Conference 2016, but fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to change the church constitution.
The vote on May 17 was 482 in favor of term limits and 332 opposed.
The Association of Annual Conference Lay leaders introduced the petition, arguing that lifetime tenure for bishops in the United States “inevitably invites abuse of power and creates a mistrust with the local churches.”
Lonnie Brooks, legislative chair of the association, recalled that a term limits proposal at General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Florida, had a majority of just one vote.
He noted the stronger support this time and predicted term limits needs “one more go at it,” at General Conference 2020, to get the two-thirds majority.
Constitutional amendments also require a two-thirds majority of total annual conference voters to take effect.
The term limits petition at General Conference 2016 won approval in the Ministry and Higher Education/Superintendency Committee by a 56-30 vote.
The petition said that, beginning in 2020, bishops in the jurisdictional (U.S.) and central conferences would be elected for a term of eight years, and could be elected to another eight-year term.
The petition also said retired bishops would no longer be a member of the Council of Bishops or their respective College of Bishops.
At present, the church constitution says U.S. bishops get life tenure. The constitution allows central conferences — church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe — to set the tenure of their respective bishops.
A bishops’ task force report raised concerns about the variety of length of terms that bishops serve and asked whether it was time to unify tenure.
The Rev. Ellis Conley of the West Virginia Conference gave a heated speech against term limits in floor debate Tuesday, saying bishops would cease to be prophetic voices and strong leaders, and would be forced to curry favor with clergy and laity to be reelected.
“Our fear and suspicion of our episcopal leaders is nothing new, but it’s short-sighted and only a veiled attempt to make our bishops lap dogs to do our bidding,” Conley said.
An effort to refer the bill to the Inter-jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee failed.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]