In a few short days, United Methodist from across the United States will gather at jurisdictional conferences. The main purpose of these gatherings is to elect episcopal candidates who will serve as an annual conference’s resident bishops. During this cycle of jurisdictional conferences, 11 new bishops will be elected. My jurisdiction, Southeast, will elect five new bishops.
As a United Methodist pastor and an outside observe to the jurisdictional process, I hope that these gatherings will be a time of deep prayer and discernment regarding the role of the episcopacy. This shouldn’t be just a time of election, but a time to rediscover the importance of the episcopacy in the life of our denomination and what it means for our churches to be led by a bishop.
For delegates who are preparing to attend jurisdictional conferences, I hope they will take time to read the thoughts of retiring North Alabama Resident Bishop William Willimon found in his book “Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question.” The book casts a vision that sees a bishop as a strong leader who promotes a vision of mission and vitality for the denomination. Indeed, we need bishops who are led by the Spirit and desire to move forward in mission with Christ.
In what can be described as a memoir of sorts, Willimon looks back at his eight yeas in Birmingham, Ala., but does so in a way of guiding a vision of what the episcopacy should look like. Willimon believes that a bishop should be a strong voice for change and restructuring in the denomination. He writes of wanting bishops “who are determined to serve God’s future rather than maintain our institutional past” (159). To do this, Willimon believes that bishops must hold clergy accountable, promote a vision of mission, and who guides us in the truth of our beliefs.
Willimon is right. We need strong bishops. The United Methodist Church needs bishops who promote accountability and fruitfulness, both among churches and clergy. We need bishops who promote a vision of mission that is aligned with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need bishops who are not afraid to teach our doctrines. Bishops are a strong and needed voice in leading the church forward in a vision of serving Christ.
However, bishops are not alone in this effort and they are not the only voice. A bishop cannot inspire change on his or her own. A bishop needs help from the clergy and laity to promote accountability, vision, and deep change. Willimon focuses much of his time of the role of the episcopacy, so there was little attention paid to how clergy and laity can partner with a bishop in promoting change in a congregation. I would have liked to have seen this discussed more. Laity have an important role in promoting change and asking the questions that seldom get asked. Clergy must lead the mission and direct a vision of engagement in their local congregations.
Willimon’s words are appropriate and should be read by those who are concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church, and the church universal. You will not agree with all of his suggestions, which I do not. However, by the end of the short book you will find yourself in agreement that we need visionary bishops who desire the church to be moving forward instead of looking behind. On that, we can all agree with Willimon.