Council of Bishops decides to limit meetings, shift roles

TAMPA, Fla.—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 (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, the council’s president, said in an interview.

Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany blesses the elements for Holy Communion during opening worship at the 2012 General Conference. During the conference, Bishop Wenner began a two-year term as president of the UMC’s Council of Bishops. UMNS PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE

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. Also, around around two dozen committees and other groups that meet throughout the four-year period will be reduced 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 denomination’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.

“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.

Role of retired bishops

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.”

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, Bishop Goodpaster alluded to the anxieties these discussions have stirred. “Simply raising the question has caused divisions and created tensions,” he said in his sermon.

At the time of the bishops’ meeting, General Conference delegates were to face petitions seeking to limit the role of retired bishops and petitions that would seek to limit the tenure of active bishops.

“Those concerns are going to be raised and discussed regardless of what the bishops do,” Bishop Goodpaster said.

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.

Lingering concern

Richmond (Va.) Area Bishop Charlene Kammerer, who will retire this year, supported the council reforms but with some reservations.

“We’ve been struggling with this for so long—really several quadrennia—I hope we’ve made a wise decision, and I think it’s worth living into the new structure,” she said. “I remain concerned about unintentional separation of active and retired bishops, and I think it will be up to all of us to help this council stay together as one body.”

After the active bishops formally voted, retired Bishop Cliff Ives of Portland, Maine, asked the retired bishops to raise their hands if they affirmed the reforms. All retired bishops raised their hands.

Retired Bishop Donald A. Ott of Pewaukee, Wis., said he thinks the council is making “a helpful change that gets at the essentials of what we’re after without demeaning the contribution of retired bishops.

“There are essential things that some retired bishops have that this council should not be without—prophetic voices, administrative skills, a willingness to fill in and take pressure off of active bishops,” he said.

Baguio (Philippines) Area Bishop Rodolfo Alfonso Juan, an active bishop, said he hopes the change will be acceptable to all.

“I believe this will be a new paradigm,” he said, “and hopefully we will accomplish more with this new setting.”


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