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What influence did Francis Asbury have on the role of bishops?

The ordination of Bishop Francis Asbury performed by Bishop Thomas Coke in Baltimore, Md., at the Christmas Conference, the historic meeting establishing the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States in 1784. An engraving by A. Gilchrist Campbell from a painting by Thomas Coke Ruckle, 1882. Courtesy of the Drew University Methodist Collection (Madison, New Jersey) via Wikimedia Commons.
The ordination of Bishop Francis Asbury performed by Bishop Thomas Coke in Baltimore, Md., at the Christmas Conference, the historic meeting establishing the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States in 1784. An engraving by A. Gilchrist Campbell from a painting by Thomas Coke Ruckle, 1882. Courtesy of the Drew University Methodist Collection (Madison, New Jersey) via Wikimedia Commons.

When you think of a United Methodist bishop, what comes to mind? An organizer or re-organizer of conference ministries? Someone who seeks to keep the whole flock together, even while some move in diverging directions? A person who leads by building consensus with other leaders?

The role of bishops in The United Methodist Church owes much to the pioneering work of Francis Asbury, one of American Methodism’s first bishops. Bishop Asbury set the precedents and laid the groundwork for much of what United Methodist bishops do today.

Bishops as organizers/re-organizers of ministry

John Wesley sent Asbury to help oversee the Methodist societies in the American colonies in September 1771. Thirteen years later, Asbury was ordained as bishop at the 1784 Conference that created the Methodist Episcopal Church. And though he had been an effective organizer of the societies, now he had the responsibility to create the organization and structure of a fledgling denomination.

One of the most important challenges Asbury faced was to help transition the network of Methodist societies he was already leading into functioning as fully fledged congregations. As societies, they had been focused primarily on supporting accountable discipleship meetings for committed adults. But as congregations, they would now also have to offer weekly public worship, open to all who wanted to attend, celebrate the sacraments, and train people of all ages and backgrounds in the basics of the faith.

Bishop Asbury had to find a way to train and ordain more clergy to serve the new congregations. Although not a formally educated man himself, Asbury believed strongly in training preachers. He created a process of theological and professional education — grounded in both guided readings and mentorship — that still largely persists in the ways licensed local pastors are trained.

Bishop Asbury also had to find an effective means to deploy the very limited number of ordained clergy available for appointment. From the 1780s well into the early 19th century, a typical ordained elder was assigned to serve 12 congregations on a circuit. The elder would be able to visit, preside in worship and provide oversight for each local church for one week at a time. During that week, everything that a pastor could do would be done, from offering the sacraments, to presiding at marriages, to burying the dead, to making sure the administration of the local church and its ministries was in good order. On the 13th week of each quarter, Bishop Asbury would convene his pastors to hear how their work was going and assign them to their charges for the coming quarter.

Today’s United Methodist bishops continue to build on Asbury’s platform of equipping local churches for all of their ministries, providing for the training of clergy, appointing clergy to their charges, and keeping the conference organized for accomplishing its mission through regular gatherings of its lay and clergy leaders.

Bishops as a source of unity

Before the creation of The Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784 and before Asbury was formally ordained as a bishop, there were already multiple stresses and strains within the fabric of the American Methodist societies. One of the most serious of these happened when, in 1780, the Methodist leaders meeting in Virginia passed a resolution to break away from the Church of England and establish themselves as an independent church.

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Asbury was quickly notified of their action, took to his horse, arrived at the site of the meeting before all had disbanded, and convinced the leaders to reconvene to rescind their resolution. Why? Were there not pressing reasons for a separation, especially with a war against England still underway? Yes, there were. But there were greater “Reasons against a Separation,” as Asbury reminded them, using John and Charles Wesley’s pamphlet that had been included in every Methodist hymnal published since the late 1750s. And, more fundamentally, if Virginia Methodists made this decision by themselves, rather than with the leaders of all the societies together, that could shatter the entire American connection, with some regions choosing separation, others not, and no clear way for collaboration thereafter.

Today’s United Methodist bishops are charged at their consecration “to guard the faith, to seek the unity, and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” This regard for the faith, unity and discipline of the whole church — seen in Asbury’s efforts in Virginia in 1780 — has also been exemplified by today’s bishops in their work to lead churchwide and worldwide emphases to strengthen local churches (the Call to Action), to fight and eradicate malaria (Imagine No Malaria) and, most recently, to advocate for full access to vaccines against COVID-19 worldwide.

Bishops as consensus developers

John Wesley established the core discipline for the Methodist preachers he appointed by gathering the preachers in a conference where he would read out a series of questions about what to teach, how to teach, and what to do, and then read out his own answers to those questions. He expected his preachers simply to give their assent and do likewise.

Bishop Asbury’s approach was entirely different. While the Books of Discipline from the time of Asbury until after the U.S. Civil War still included a series of questions and answers, the answers provided were no longer those of Asbury (or other bishops) alone. Instead, they were the result of the give and take from actual conversations between Asbury (and later bishops) and the clergy gathered in conference. Asbury believed the preachers needed to be involved actively in making decisions about their connection and the work they were doing. 

In a similar way, though John Wesley had simply appointed Asbury to be the chief organizer of the Methodist mission in America, Asbury would not accept the title of superintendent from Wesley without approval from a vote of the preachers themselves in conference. For Wesley, a man of the Crown, leadership came from those he named. For Asbury, an Englishman living in the newly independent America, leadership came from the consent of those being led.

Today’s United Methodist bishops continue this heritage. United Methodist bishops are not named by other bishops but are chosen by the clergy and lay members of the jurisdictional and central conferences. And their primary role in the annual conference sessions is generally not to mandate what will happen, but rather to lead the members of the conference to make decisions they want to make for the greater good of the conference.

Organizing, unifying and developing consensus are at the core of the work of United Methodist bishops today. All three of these significant roles, and many of the ways they are done today, go back directly to the work of one of American Methodism’s first bishops. Thank you, Bishop Asbury!


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