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The long road to adding 5 new bishops

Many United Methodists look forward to having five more bishops in Africa starting in 2021, and church members are buzzing about which countries they might serve.

"Bearing in mind the huge geographical spread of the continent, and the hazards of communication and travel, there is unarguably a very strong need for more episcopal areas across the vast continent," said Sierra Leone's Bishop John K. Yambasu, president of the African College of Bishops.

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But determining where best to add the new bishops remains a work in progress. Church leaders have made no decisions or formal recommendations.

The 2016 General Conference — the denomination's top lawmaking body —approved legislation from the standing committee to increase the number of African bishops from 13 to 18.

The standing committee is a General Conference committee that continues to meet between legislative sessions.

Central conferences are seven church regions in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The African continent currently has three central conferences— Africa, Congo and West Africa. Each encompasses multiple countries and languages.

The 2016 legislationcalls on the standing committee to "implement a collaborative comprehensive plan on numbers and boundaries of central conferences and episcopal areas in Africa."

The Africa College of Bishops already has recommended to the standing committee the creation of seven central conferences in Africa.

The standing committee will determine what recommendations to bring to the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

Ultimately, it's up to General Conference to decide the boundaries of central conferences and the number of bishops who serve them.

Each central conference — which meets at least once every four years — sets the boundaries of episcopal areas and where bishops are assigned within their borders.

What United Methodists broadly agree is that more bishops are needed to help shoulder supervisory and shepherding responsibilities in a part of the world where the denomination is seeing consistent growth.

At present, nearly 5.7 million United Methodists live outside the United States, and the vast majority live on the African continent.

Yambasu pointed out that the continent's potential for church growth shows no sign of abating. The Pew Research Center projects that by 2050, nearly one in four of the world's Christians will live in sub-Saharan Africa.

"The General Conference has given us the potential to have five more episcopal areas. It could be that we could use eight, but we have a directive for five," Palmer said. "So some decisions will have to be made."

The addition of new bishops is only a step in strengthening the church in Africa, Yambasu said.

"We must also be intentionally thinking of accompanying these bishops with the training of the key leadership (clergy and laity) in these episcopal areas if we are to ensure long-term sustainability," he said.

Heather Hahn, multimedia news reporter for UMNS.

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