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GC2012: Bishops limit meetings, shift roles

A UMNS Report By Heather Hahn*
5:00 P.M. ET April 23, 2012

The United Methodist Council of Bishops voted overwhelmingly April 20 to reform its organization and reduce its meetings as a full council to once a year.

"I see this as a move toward building a community where we can support one another, encourage one another and talk to each other about what's working and what's not working," Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, the council's president, told United Methodist News Service.

Under the plan, the council's spring meeting will be only for active bishops during the quadrennium of 2013-16. The full council, which includes retired bishops, will meet in the fall.

The reorganization also reduces around two dozen committees and other groups that meet throughout the four-year period to nine "leadership teams" of active and retired bishops.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, mandates only that the Council of Bishops meet at least once a year. Under the Book of Discipline, retired bishops have a voice but no vote in council business.

The changes the council approved in a show of hands came just days before the start of the 2012 General Conference, the denominations's top lawmaking body, and do not require any action by the legislative assembly.

The reorganization is in response to the Call to Action, which challenges the global denomination to redirect its attention and resources to increase the number of vital congregations and make more disciples for the transformation of the world.

Discussions in 'real time'

"I think the opportunity for the active bishops to be together &ellipsis; will allow for some discussions in 'real time,'" said Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, a leader throughout the Call to Action process and a former Council of Bishops president.

At the spring meetings, he said, the active bishops will have a chance to focus on solving the similar problems that beset their areas. In the fall, he said, active bishops can gain from the body of knowledge of their retired predecessors.

Birmingham (Ala.) Area Bishop Will Willimon cheered the new model for council work.

"The council is struggling to be more productive and to respond to the cry for more active and transformative leadership of the church," he said. "This new structure makes us more nimble, adaptive and puts the stress on bishops actually leading rather than simply having a congenial meeting."


New leadership teams

The Council of Bishops on April 20 approved a new structure and released a statement that includes nine leadership teams, including four based on the Four Areas of Ministry Focus approved by the 2008 General Conference. Those four also share the name of the four offices in the Call to Action's proposed restructuring.

Those leadership teams include:

  • Congregational Vitality: Connects with the "area of focus" related to planting new churches and faith communities
  • Missional Engagement: Connects with the "area of focus" related to global health
  • Leadership Development: Connects with the "area of focus" related to developing principled Christian leaders
  • Justice and Reconciliation: Connects with the "area of focus" related to ministry with the poor, including some of the council's current work related to racism, immigration, and unity equivalent agency
  • Faith and Order: Connects with the work of the existing Faith and Order committee, works on teaching and learning forums, theological documents, ecclesiology, ministry and orders
  • Ecumenical Relations: Connects and incorporate the work of the current United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. That commission has proposed folding itself into the Council of Bishops
  • Leadership Discernment: Possible areas of responsibility are to serve as "nominating" committee for the Council of Bishops, and for the whole church, as needed
  • Council Life Together: Possible areas of responsibility are worship services, covenant groups, pastoral matters, Pastoral Care Fund, spiritual formation
  • Finance: Possible areas of responsibility are oversight of budget of the Council of Bishops and relationship with the General Council on Finance and Administration and "Episcopal Services"

The council's vote came after years of closed-session discussions by the bishops about the role of retired colleagues. In his April 18 address to the council, Goodpaster alluded to the anxieties these discussions have stirred. "Simply raising the question has caused divisions and created tensions," he said in his sermon.

General Conference delegates will face at least seven petitions seeking to limit the role of retired bishops and at least five that seek to limit the tenure of active bishops. Those petitions are in the Superintendency Legislative Committee, which may recommend that the 988 delegates adopt, defeat or amend these petitions.

"Those concerns are going to be raised and discussed regardless of what the bishops do," Goodpaster said.

He said it would be a mistake to remove retired bishops entirely from the work of the council.

"The retired bishops bring a wealth of wisdom," he said. "They bring history. They bring corporate memory. Those are pieces that can help us move into the future. So by limiting the role of retired bishops, in some ways you are taking away a resource we rely on."

The United Methodist Church now has 47 active bishops and 69 retired bishops in the United States. In the central conferences of Africa, Europe and the Philippines, the denomination has 17 active and 23 retired bishops.

The 2012 General Conference also will consider proposals to eliminate three episcopal areas - that is, three bishop positions - in the United States and add a new episcopal area in the rapidly growing Democratic Republic of Congo.

The General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination's finance agency, has recommended a 2013-16 budget of $90,336,000 for the Episcopal Fund that supports the bishops and their staff. That figure represents a decrease of nearly $4 million, or about 4 percent, from the budget for 2009-12. Compensating for the cutback will require dipping into the bishops' $12 million reserves. The proposed Episcopal Fund budget is about 15 percent of the $603.1 million general church budget the finance agency has recommended. Ultimately, General Conference will set the budget.

Some bishops' reactions

Richmond (Va.) Area Bishop Charlene Payne Kammerer, who will retire this year, supported the council reforms but with some reservations.

"We've been struggling with this for so long - really several quadrennia - I hope we've made a wise decision, and I think it's worth living into the new structure," she said. "I remain concerned about unintentional separation of active and retired bishops, and I think it will be up to all of us to help this council stay together as one body."

After the active bishops formally voted, retired Bishop Cliff Ives of Portland, Maine, asked the retired bishops to raise their hands if they affirmed the reforms. All retired bishops raised their hands.

Retired Bishop Donald A. Ott of Pewaukee, Wis., said he thinks the council is making "a helpful change that gets at the essentials of what we're after without demeaning the contribution of retired bishops.

"There are essential things that some retired bishops have that this council should not be without prophetic voices, administrative skills, a willingness to fill in and take pressure off of active bishops," he said.

Baguio (Philippines) Area Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan, an active bishop, said he hopes the change will be acceptable to all.

"I believe this will be a new paradigm," he said, "and hopefully we will accomplish more with this new setting."

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 newsdesk@umcom.org.