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‘The bishop goes around and gives high fives’

Editor's note: This is one of three stories about the 2012 episcopal elections. For a complete look at the jurisdictional conferences and elections, see July conferences to elect 11 U.S. bishops and 44 candidates for the episcopacy.

The 14 United Methodist bishops in the United States who are retiring this year collectively have given hundreds of years of service to the church in their lives. Here are recollections and advice offered by some as they step away:

Bishop Peter Weaver

Weaver says that during a visit to a church shortly after his 1996 election, the pastor asked the children, "What do you think a bishop does?" One little boy responded, "The bishop goes around and gives high fives." Weaver says that is the best description of a ministry of presence and encouragement.

Taking early retirement from the Boston Episcopal Area, Weaver said the best advice he ever received came from a pastor who served as his mentor: "You are not the savior. Remember who is the Savior."

Bishop William H. Willimon

Willimon, who is taking early retirement after eight years of service in the Birmingham Area, says he is generally opposed to retired bishops giving advice to working bishops. "My chief advice to a new bishop is to be suspicious of advice proffered by retired bishops."

Nevertheless, Willimon offers some suggestions.

"The best training for being a United Methodist bishop is, fortunately, exactly the work that is done by any faithful Methodist preacher: Tell the truth as God tells it to you; try to miss as many meetings as possible; expect the church to be thoroughly tainted with sin (including your own); try to love Jesus more than the praise of your people, and keep believing that despite all of the church's setbacks (including your episcopacy), in the end God is going to get what God wants! Hallelujah!"

Bishop Mary Ann Swenson

Elected to the episcopacy in 1992 and retiring from the Los Angeles Area, Swenson passes on two pieces of advice given to the Council of Bishops by Bishop Prince Taylor:

  1. "When you are called and sent somewhere, go and follow because the Holy Spirit is present with you and has work for you to do."
  2. "Never think God has exhausted God's self in creating you."

Bishop Max Whitfield

"I wish that I had known that as a leader of the church, I was running a marathon race and not a 50-yard dash," says Whitfield, who leads the Northwest Texas-New Mexico Area and is taking early retirement.

Bishop Ernest S. Lyght

Elected to the episcopacy in 1996 and retired from the West Virginia Area for health reasons in December 2011, Lyght offers three suggestions to newly elected bishops:

  1. "From the very first day, take the time (prayerful discernment) to discover your rhythm of ministry in the office of episcopal leader. It might take weeks or months for you to discern your rhythm. What daily practices work for you?"
  2. "Strive to practice a ministry of presence, which does not mean that you have to be everywhere. A ministry of presence is about building relationships over time."
  3. "As a bishop, always seek to be a learner who teaches and partners with the laity and the clergy in the matter of spiritual leadership."

Bishop Ann Sherer-Simpson

The bishop, who was elected in 1992 and is retiring from the Nebraska Area, says:

"The episcopacy is a great privilege, an incredible opportunity to build relationships with partners all around the world, to listen and learn, and to share one's own unique gifts to build up the ministry of the local and the connectional church for God's use in transforming the world."

In discussing the crucial role of appointing clergy, she notes:

"Every person I encounter is a valuable child of God and should be treated as such, but that person may not be called to ordained ministry. Who is appointed to lead a local church is the most important factor in fruitful ministry in a local church."

Here is a list of the bishops who are retiring: