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United Methodist bishops will consider adopting a covenant of accountability based on their consecration vows.

Illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications

United Methodist bishops will consider adopting a covenant of accountability based on their consecration vows.

Bishops urged to adopt accountability covenant

By Heather Hahn
March 9, 2016 | UMNS

A bishops’ task force has recommended that the full Council of Bishops adopt a covenant of accountability when the body next meets in May.

“Accountability is a fundamental way of life among the people called Methodists,” said Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson, a task force member. “We are to hold one another accountable as a part of our spiritual disciplines as we live together in community.”

The proposed covenant, based largely on the bishops’ consecration vows, comes as the denomination is struggling with declining U.S. worship attendance, deep divisions regarding homosexuality and questions of what it means for church leaders to be accountable.

It also comes just two months before the 2016 General Conference, where delegates will consider multiple proposals aimed at holding bishops’ feet to the fire.

These petitions include giving the council more authority when bishops face complaints under church law.

Bishops do not vote at General Conference — the denomination’s top legislative assembly — but they do have the responsibility of providing parliamentary guidance and presiding over legislative sessions.

The Council of Bishops will next meet starting May 5 in Portland, Oregon, immediately before the assembly. The bishops also also plan to meet again on May 21, the day after General Conference concludes.

“As we prepare for the 2016 General Conference, we join together in a covenant that is rooted in our consecration vows and that outlines how we intend to fulfill those vows and provide spiritual leadership prior to, during, and after General Conference,” the proposed covenant says.

San Francisco Area Bishop Warner H. Brown Jr., the president of the Council of Bishops and a task force member, said all bishops are committed to carrying out their vows to the best of their abilities.

“This (statement) is putting it out there that this is a part of our accountability process,” he said. “This is something we take seriously, and we look to each other to honor that commitment.”

Johnson sees the covenant as a way to strengthen ministry. “Steel sharpens steel as we encourage one another into greater degrees of holiness and righteous living.”

Proposed Covenant of Accountability

Bishops of the church are spiritual leaders who are set apart by the church to lead with hope in our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ. The vows which each bishop affirmed at her or his consecration continue to guide and shape our ministry. We as a Council have affirmed this commitment to our vows. The heart of those commitments are found in these statements from the Service of Consecration. We vow and commit ourselves…

  • “…to guard the faith, to seek the unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church….”
  • “…to preach and teach the truth of the gospel to all God’s people…”
  • “…to lead the people…in their mission of witness and service in the world….”
  • “…to lead and guide all persons entrusted to [our] care….” 

(The complete Order for the Consecration of Bishops may be found in the United Methodist Book of Worship, pages 698-710.)

As we prepare for the 2016 General Conference, we join together in a covenant that is rooted in our consecration vows and that outlines how we intend to fulfill those vows and provide spiritual leadership prior to, during, and after General Conference.

By God’s grace we, the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, covenant together to…

  • Honor God, follow Jesus, and lead relying upon the Holy Spirit in all we say and do.
  • Be in prayer for the General Conference, the delegates and visitors.
  • Work for the unity of the church.
  • Show respect for all persons.
  • Offer pastoral care to and with anyone.
  • Carry out our presidential duties in a manner that enables the work of the General Conference to be conducted in an orderly and non-disruptive manner.
  • Be guided by the clear intent of the Book of Discipline as we fulfill our vows to “…guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the church.” (¶403.1)
  • “…plan for the general oversight and promotion of the temporal and spiritual interests of the entire Church and for carrying into effect the rules, regulations, and responsibilities prescribed and enjoined by the General Conference.” (¶47)
  • Grow as spiritual leaders who offer passion, clarity, hope and imagination to the church as we are fully engaged in the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
  • Order our lives and leadership in the firm conviction as stated by John Wesley: “the best of all is, God is with us." 

We pledge to hold each other accountable for living out this covenant and to seek the support and prayers of the entire church.

How the covenant came to be

The proposal comes after years of discussions among bishops about how they can hold each other accountable.

The Council of Bishops formed its Accountability Task Force in May 2013, after the bishops decided to find a mechanism for mutual accountability, especially in fulfilling their commitment to foster congregational vitality.

In addition to Brown and Johnson, task force members also include Bishops Janice Huie, Gregory Palmer as well as retired Bishops Hans Vaxby and Peter Weaver. Charlotte (North Carolina) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster is the task force’s chair.

In November 2014, Brown concluded his first address as the Council of Bishops president by inviting his fellow episcopal leaders to reaffirm the vows they took during their consecration as bishops.

During that same Council of Bishops meeting and the following one in May 2015, bishops also broke into small groups and discussed what might be included in a code of conduct.

At the task force’s prompting, the bishops discussed some common courtesies, such as responding to email and phone calls promptly, and seeking permission first before doing church work in each other’s areas.

“The goal of our task force is to find the common agreements and expectations that we have of one another,” Goodpaster told United Methodist News Service at the most recent Council of Bishops meeting last year.

He added that the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s book of law and teachings, gives bishops limited authority in how they hold each other accountable with regard to church law.

“Complaints, charges, any of those kinds of things ─ that’s defined in the Discipline and that’s beyond our control and our power,” he said. “What we can do is hold each other accountable for our ministry and our work together.”

The proposed covenant does not include any mechanisms for enforcement.

“We trust in God’s grace that we will live in the spirit of what we intend do,” Brown said.

Two complaints

However, General Conference may take up the question of enforcement.

Even as the task force has gone about its work, two United Methodist bishops have faced two highly public, but very different complaints under church law.

At the request of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert faced a complaint in March 2014 after he officiated at the union of two men — Joe Openshaw and Bobby Prince — in defiance of church law. The complaint ended in January 2015 with a resolution agreed to by all parties involved in the case. The resolution has both supporters and detractors.

In a separate situation, the board of the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration filed a complaint in March 2013 against East Africa Area Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who faces longstanding questions of whether his episcopal area misused more than $757,000 in church funds. That complaint is still pending, and to date, the Council of Bishops has offered no public statements on the matter.

Both of these situations have prompted multiple pieces of legislation aimed at revising the complaint process against bishops. Currently, a complaint against a bishop is handled mainly within that bishop’s geographical area — namely, the jurisdiction if the bishop is in the United States, or the central conference if the bishop is in Africa, Europe or the Philippines.

Various proposals would give the Council of Bishops more authority in addressing complaints. Two proposals would require the council to get involved if a complaint has not been adjudicated in 180 days (roughly six months).

Reactions to the covenant

Wandabula said he sees the covenant as important for church unity. 

"As we prepare for the 2016 General Conference, I know that there are a number of issues that are threatening the unity of The United Methodist Church," he said by email. "As it is indicated in the covenant, as United Methodist bishops we need to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit."

In response to the covenant proposal, he said he has committed himself to prayer and fasting ahead of the bishops' May meeting. 

For his part, Talbert said he does not have any objections to the proposed covenant, but he does think the document is unnecessary. He also pointed out that as a retired bishop, he has voice but no vote in whatever the council decides.

“Some bishops may feel that this is helpful,” he said. “But from my perspective, I knew the covenant I made when I was elected a bishop in 1980. I lived by it then and continue to live by it now.”

The Book of Discipline officially bans clergy from performing and churches from hosting same-sex weddings. The church also defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

As with bishop accountability, multiple proposals are heading to General Conference regarding how the church ministers with LGBTQ individuals. The initials stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning.

Some legislation aims to end the church’s current restrictions and some would strengthen penalties when the restrictions are violated.

Ultimately, General Conference may determine just what accountability will look like in the coming years.

Talbert sees his challenges to denominational positions as in line with his vows and his Christian faith. He calls his campaign biblical obedience.

“Defending the faith has to do with your interpretation with Scripture and your understanding of who God is,” he said.

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.