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Mike DuBose

The Rev. Robert J. Williams (left) and Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Council of Bishops, lead a discussion on the proposed nonresidential bishop during The United Methodist Church's pre-General Conference news briefing at the Tampa Convention

Should bishops have a full-time president?

In the blogosphere, commenters have called the proposed position everything from a United Methodist archbishop to the denomination's CEO.

One thing is certain: The proposal to set aside a bishop to serve as the full-time Council of Bishops president is sparking discussion. Debate about the measure even surfaced at the March meeting of the Connectional Table, which coordinates the denomination's mission, ministry and resources.

The amendment to the church's constitution would allow the council to elect one of its own to a full-time, four-year position without the usual responsibilities of overseeing a geographic area.

According to the amendment's rationale, the president would have the authority to serve as the denomination's chief ecumenical officer and give coordination to the reforms spelled out in the Call to Action report, which calls for fostering vital congregations.

At present, the council president serves a two-year term and retains a residential assignment to a geographic area. In recent years, the council's ecumenical officer has been chosen from the ranks of retired bishops.

Proponents say the new position will give The United Methodist Church better representation in ecumenical settings and assure sustained attention on the work of the council and the 10-year focus on increasing the number of vital United Methodist congregations.

"One of the things the council is asking for is a leader much like our general agencies have; they have general secretaries," Washington Area Bishop John R. Schol told the Connectional Table. The council, he said, is looking for someone who can provide leadership "as it relates to aligning work across annual conferences, as it relates to providing accountability within the council and supporting bishops in their leadership."

However, critics say that the new post will help tilt the denomination's power away from laity toward the bishops.

The Rev. Mary Kay Totty. Photo courtesy of Dumbarton United Methodist Church.
The Rev. Mary Kay Totty. Photo courtesy of Dumbarton United Methodist Church.

"The issue is that election is by the Council of Bishops, not the laity and not half-laity, half-clergy," the Rev. Eddie Fox, world director of evangelism for The World Methodist Council, told the Connectional Table. "That just violates our historical DNA."

In some quarters, people have even called the position a United Methodist pope.

Others contend the proposal too closely follows the model of the corporate world.

Among these critics is the Rev. Mary Kay Totty, senior pastor of Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington. In a Jan. 29 sermon, she shared her concerns about what is most commonly called the "set-aside" bishop.

"As United Methodists, we strive to honor the voice of both clergy and laity in the
decision-making of our churches," she preached. "A set-aside bishop shifts that balance of power. Some United Methodists have looked at the world around and seen our neighbors, like business and industry, and decided that the church needs to be run as if it were a business."

To be ratified, a constitutional amendment first requires a two-thirds majority vote at the 2012 General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body. It next must win a two-thirds majority of the total annual (regional) conference voters. If the amendment is ratified, the earliest start date for a non-residential bishop would be 2014.

New structure and the bishop

If approved, the new president would likely be the bishop chosen to chair the proposed General Council for Strategy and Oversight. Under the Call to Action Interim Operations Team's proposed agency reorganization, the general council would appoint and hold accountable the 15 board members of the new Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry that would encompass the work now done by nine general agencies.

That concerns the Rev. Ed Tomlinson and Joe M. Whittemore, both General Conference delegates from the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference. Tomlinson is a district superintendent, and Whittemore is a conference lay leader and Connectional Table member.

The Rev. Eddie Fox. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.
The Rev. Eddie Fox. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.

The new "set-aside" bishop, they told United Methodist News Service, would dominate laity and other clergy on the general council because the new body would only meet once a year. In a United Methodist Reporter column, Whittemore suggested instead electing a lay executive of the Council of Bishops to facilitate the accountability of individual bishops.

The Rev. Tim McClendon, a South Carolina district superintendent and himself an episcopal candidate, has a similar critique. He told the Pre-General Conference News Briefing that he thinks "the set-aside bishop is where the real power is in the proposed structure."

Neil M. Alexander, president of the United Methodist Publishing House, and Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer have a different take. They are both leaders of the Interim Operations Team, which has endorsed the proposal.

"Having a full-time president of the council will help provide the sustained and concentrated focus needed to provide resources and consultation on best practices, along with assistance for all active bishops in setting meaningful goals and... sharing about the best use of key metrics to monitor progress," they said in a joint statement.

Gary Shorb, an Interim Operations Team member, said he envisions the new office, not as a pope or chief executive officer, but rather as a chief operating officer for the denomination.

"The set-aside bishop is a new direction but one I think is badly needed," said Shorb, who is president and CEO of Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, Tenn.

Gary Shorb. A UMNS file photo.
Gary Shorb. A UMNS file photo.

"That individual can focus their efforts full time on working with all the conferences to really get some consistency in the application of metrics throughout the church and application of performance standards, and the applications of the way we can develop more effective pastoral leadership."

Totty, a reserve delegate, is wary of this focus on metrics. What works in business, she said, isn't always right for the church.

"Are there things that the church can learn from secular businesses? Absolutely," she said in her sermon. "However, churches are not franchises - as I have heard one bishop refer to congregations. And there is much in the life and health of a congregation that cannot be measured for entry into a statistical report."

The bishop and oversight

The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, a historian of Methodism and professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., said he likes the idea of the new position, though he doesn't like the label set-aside bishop. It sounds too much like the bishop in that post would not have a full workload, he said.

The nonresidential bishop and history

The Rev. Thomas E. Frank, a historian of Methodism at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., acknowledges the proposal will face a tough fight at General Conference. Previous efforts to have a full-time Council of Bishops president have failed to gain traction.

In the 1930s, American Methodism began to move toward a weak bishop's office largely controlled by conferences, Frank said. Tellingly, the Methodist Church in 1939 removed the word Episcopal (meaning governed by bishops) from its name. That same year also marked the union with Methodist Protestants who had no bishops for a century.

The Rev. Robert J. Williams, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, outlined the complicated history of proposed nonresidential bishops in a presentation at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing.

"Just because it hasn't been done, doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. Just because it hasn't been done, doesn't mean it should be done," Williams told the delegates. "It is up to others to anticipate what may be the benefits or the unintended consequences of this change. All that can be said from our heritage is that it is a departure from the practice that developed after (John) Wesley and after (founding Bishop Francis) Asbury."

The proposed nonresidential bishop, he said, would have plenty to do. That individual would help the Council of Bishops to carry out its mandate in the denomination's constitution to provide "itinerant general superintendency."

"There is no way the Council of Bishops can have a continuing voice or practical oversight in the current model," he said. "But General Conference and the aggregate members of annual conferences can make it more possible for that mandate to be carried out through a constitutional amendment allowing for the Council of Bishops to have a bishop whose sole assignment is to advance the oversight work of the council."

Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, the current president, also has pointed to the increasing difficulty of both leading the council and overseeing a residential area. Goodpaster submitted the amendment on behalf of the council.

Still, there's no guarantee General Conference delegates and annual conference voters will agree with the amendment proponents.

At its meeting in May 2011, the Council of Bishops endorsed the constitutional amendment only after hours of discussion over a three-day period, and the vote was not unanimous.

"The church is double-minded," Frank said, "wanting bishops to do something, to turn things around, to fix our problems, to lead; but not wanting to give the bishops any real powers other than influence."

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

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