A bishop is a funny word and a funny position within the United Methodist Church. In Roman Catholic churches, the bishop is a separate ordination and a special calling. In the United Methodist Church, a bishop is an elder elected to be the superintendent of an annual conference and to preside over that conference session. They are given authorities to particular ministries, but they are still full elders. However, instead of being members of annual conferences (like other elders), bishops are members of the College of Bishops.
Bishops deserve respect but not fealty. They are not members of the House of Lords (like in the Church of England) and their power is not infinite, yet they have specific authorities that are quite consequential. They also have a task that is not enviable. A few years ago, I wrote about the office on the site Ministry matters and I am posting the full text here to share more about what I learned of Bishop’s at that time.
In December of 2015, I was on my way to San Antonio to drop off my papers at the Episcopal Office for ordination as an elder in the Rio Texas Conference. While on the road, I received an email from the conference communications director concerning an imminent announcement about the actions of our bishop. A few hours later, came the bishop’s resignation. I handed off my papers hoping to be ordained but having no idea who would actually ordain me. Instead of bringing in a retired bishop to finish Mr. Dorff’s term, though, the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction elected to have four bishops cover the responsibilities of the Rio Texas Conference. These were all people who had come out of either the former Southwest Texas Conference or the former Rio Grande Conference and so they had a special relationship with us. What I don’t think they realized is that by delegating the functions of the bishop to four separate individuals, they revealed a great insight into how bishops in the United Methodist Church actually view their own job.
The Bishop of Record for Rio Texas was Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Conference. Houston is geographically closest to San Antonio and the Texas and former Southwest Texas Conferences had shared bishops in the past. What is important with Bishop Huie is that as the bishop of record, her one responsibility was for appointments. That’s it. Thus, we see that bishops understand appointments as the most important responsibility given to them since the power to appointment went hand in hand with an official capacity as bishop.
Bishop Robert Schnase of the Missouri Conference was designated to plan and lead Annual Conference. The Bishop is president of the conference. Sometimes we may forget because conference happens only once a year, but this was seen by the college of bishops as a responsibility great enough to fully occupy one person.
Bishop Michael Lowry of the Central Texas Conference was designated with overseeing the nominations process of the conference. Because Rio Texas is a new conference, many older disciplinary committees have been merged together, but there is still a lot of work to be done in nominations. Bishop Lowry was also tasked officially with assisting the transition to the new bishop, though what that specifically means was never made clear.
Bishop Joel Martínez, a retired bishop of both the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Conferences was designated with preaching at special services around the conference, overseeing mission, service and justice ministries, and with sitting on the various boards and charities that go with being bishop of the conference.
There was a fifth bishop who oversaw the Rio Texas Conference in the Spring and Summer of 2016. He was not named in the official press releases. He was not discussed on the website. But when we met up as districts to discuss the new system, Bishop Huie herself mentioned this function. Bishop Michael McKee of North Texas was designated with overseeing complaints and judicial actions. Bishop Huie said that this was the worst part of the job of being a bishop so she was thankful that Bishop McKee took on this responsibility.
So what we have is a five-fold office: appointments, annual conference, nominations, pastoral ministry, and judicial complaints. We should not see these functions as equivalent but comparable. This is how bishops see their job. This is what they do. Each of these tasks is an enormous responsibility. United Methodist bishops are not a separate order because they are not a separate ordination. They do not function like Catholic or Episcopal bishops, no matter how fancy a crozier one person may have. The pragmatic episcopacy is a noble goal. An episcopacy based on truly superintending the connection (that is, fulfilling the functions that are asked) as opposed to positioning oneself above the connection.
So what can we learn from this episcopal relationship? Bishops in the UMC have a lot of responsibilities. In order for active bishops to help with the Rio Texas conference, they were only willing to take on one aspect of episcopal ministry. It may go without saying, but the episcopacy is an arduous place to be and the people there need our continuous prayers and respect. How often do you pray for your bishop? Have you ever asked of their spiritual condition? Have you ever asked how they are going on to perfection in this life? The five-fold office mentioned here does not even include responsibilities to any General Boards or Agencies. Yet in the five-old office, I see a hopeful future for the position of bishop. A future that does not have CEO envy or Catholic envy but is firmly Wesleyan in the goal of sanctification, in the goal of personal responsibility, in the goal of social holiness, in the goal of being disciples of Jesus Christ.
It is here that I propose an idea of the pragmatic bishop. The pragmatic bishop leads by serving. The pragmatic bishop leads by doing the job of the bishop, the five tasks the bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction knew needed to be done for the conference to continue. Maybe a few more tasks, but at least these five. The pragmatic bishop is not a person apart but a person in ministry with and our connection will be strengthened as conferences and bishops see their relationship as deeply connected. The bishop is not simply an authority. The bishop has a job. Titus 1:5 points to this. 1 Timothy 3 points to the character of the person who would do this. For us not so called, it is our job to serve as the bishop requires, and help build a church where the office of bishop is not isolating but sanctifying.
When we, as a church, affirm that the most effective place for making disciples of Jesus Christ is the local church, we are not saying that we don’t need bishop’s leadership. We are saying that bishops are not the center of the story of what it means to be a Methodist. The bishop is a part of the story, they serve a function, but they are the center. By looking at the interim episcopacy of the Rio Texas Conference, we can see how bishops view what they do, and we can see what they do not find important enough to designate. We in the local church should be reminded of what we do and, mostly, what God has done and is still doing through all of us, despite all of us