Bishops Limit Meetings, Shift Roles

By Heather Hahn

The United Methodist Council of Bishops voted overwhelmingly April 20 to reform its organization and reduce its meetings as a full council to once a year.

“I see this as a move toward building a community where we can support one another, encourage one another and talk to each other about what’s working and what’s not working,” Charlotte (North Carolina) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, the council’s president, told United Methodist News Service.

Under the plan, the council’s spring meeting will be only for active bishops during the quadrennium of 2013-16. The full council, which includes retired bishops, will meet in the fall.

The reorganization also reduces around two dozen committees and other groups that meet throughout the four-year period to nine “leadership teams” of active and retired bishops.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, mandates only that the Council of Bishops meet at least once a year. Under the Book of Discipline, retired bishops have a voice but no vote in council business.

The changes the council approved in a show of hands came just days before the start of the 2012 General Conference, the denominations’s top lawmaking body, and do not require any action by the legislative assembly.

The reorganization is in response to the Call to Action, which challenges the global denomination to redirect its attention and resources to increase the number of vital congregations and make more disciples for the transformation of the world.

Discussions in ‘real time.’ “I think the opportunity for the active bishops to be together … will allow for some discussions in ‘real time,’” said Illinois Area Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, a leader throughout the Call to Action process and a former Council of Bishops president.

At the spring meetings, he said, the active bishops will have a chance to focus on solving the similar problems that beset their areas. In the fall, he said, active bishops can gain from the body of knowledge of their retired predecessors.

Birmingham (Ala.) Area Bishop Will Willimon cheered the new model for council work.

“The council is struggling to be more productive and to respond to the cry for more active and transformative leadership of the church,” he said. “This new structure makes us more nimble, adaptive and puts the stress on bishops actually leading rather than simply having a congenial meeting.”

New leadership teams. The Council of Bishops on April 20 approved a new structure and released a statement that includes nine leadership teams, including four based on the  Four Areas of Ministry Focus approved by the 2008 General Conference. Those four also share the name of the four offices in the Call to Action’s proposed restructuring.

Those leadership teams include: Congregational Vitality, Missional Engagement, Leadership Development, Justice and Reconciliation, Faith and Order, Ecumenical Relations, Leadership Discernment, Council Life Together, and Finance.

The council’s vote came after years of closed-session discussions by the bishops about the role of retired colleagues. In his April 18 address to the council, Goodpaster alluded to the anxieties these discussions have stirred. “Simply raising the question has caused divisions and created tensions,” he said in his sermon.

He said it would be a mistake to remove retired bishops entirely from the work of the council.

“The retired bishops bring a wealth of wisdom,” he said. “They bring history. They bring corporate memory. Those are pieces that can help us move into the future. So by limiting the role of retired bishops, in some ways you are taking away a resource we rely on.”

The United Methodist Church now has 47 active bishops and 69 retired bishops in the United States. In the central conferences of Africa, Europe and the Philippines, the denomination has 17 active and 23 retired bishops.

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