Bishop Willimon on GC2012 and ‘church by committee’

By William H. Willimon, Special Contributor…

General Conference in Tampa made history as the most expensive ($1,500 per minute!), least productive, most fatuous assemblage in the history of Methodism.  Sunday evening’s “A Celebration of Ministry” fiasco was a metaphor for our nearly two weeks at church expense: four hours of belabored supplication by the General Commission on Status and Role of Women, five Ethnic National Plans, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, United Methodist Men, Girl Scouts, Africa University and a number of other agencies I can’t remember.  A subtheme of that long night: even though we can’t cite specific fruit, please don’t force us to change or to expend less on ourselves.

Even after suffering this abuse, General Conference succumbed to the agencies’ pleadings.  In a post-GC blog, Mike Slaughter (who with Adam Hamilton eloquently—and futilely—warned GC that we must change or face certain death) told the truth: “Our denominational systems continue to resist change by protecting archaic structures.  From our seminaries to boards and agencies, institutional preservation was a strong resistant influence throughout GC.  Entrenched organizational bureaucracies resist accountability

By Sunday night’s end most of the exhausted delegates had fled the hall.  In a letter (as yet unanswered) the next day to the Commission on General Conference, Bishop Hope Morgan Ward (who had languished in the wings with dozens of missionaries and deaconesses awaiting commissioning) complained that there was “no coordination of the overall event … it was disjointed, repetitious, and random.”

To be fair Bishop Ward, the Commission on General Conference, in its inability (once again) to plan an affordable, manageable, productive General Conference shows no worse dysfunction than any number of our general agencies.  Besides, your criticisms imply that Sunday night was a CGC failure.

My organizational guru Ron Heifetz speaks of the “myth of the broken system.”  Heifetz argues that all systems are “healthy” in that systems produce what those who profit from the system desire.  Though the CGC can’t produce a complicated, large scale, two week convention, the CGC produces a General Conference that protects those in positions of power in our church.

“Want to insure that nothing will change and no one ever asks, ‘Now what exactly does your board produce for the advancement of the kingdom?’?  We can give you that—General Conference, Tampa, 2012.”

Some labor under the delusion that bishops actually play a role in planning and directing General Conference, in overseeing programs of the church, in guiding the direction of our connection.  Truth is, bishops not only have no voice and no vote at General Conference, we have no role in producing General Conference—and it shows.

Amid worship that wandered off into dizzying theological deviations, the forbidding challenge of so many languages (the few representatives from vanishing German Methodism got translations of the Daily Christian Advocate at the cost of $60k per delegate, even though they all speak better English than I), and the impossibility of thoughtful, honest debate among a nearly 1,000 member committee of the whole in eight or nine languages, one thing united General Conference 2012: distrust of leadership by bishops.

Though we bishops spent four years—guided by some of the church’s best management minds—devising our Call to Action, the chaotic General Administration committee (the last General Conference prohibited bishops from presiding for legislative committees) threw out the CTA’s agency restructuring plan.

The bishops’ accomplishments?  The Methodist Federation for Social Action received new life, the Board of Church and Society went home unscathed by reform, and Good News and an unlikely clutch of agitation groups united against the bishops.  A group from the Southeastern Jurisdiction, ridiculing the CTA as a power play by bishops, devised Plan B to thwart the bishops’ insidious oversight.  Plan B, attempting something unknown in the history of our connection—church by committee—got nowhere.  A group then hastily concocted Plan UMC, a flaccid compromise that limited episcopal participation.  An episcophobic GC passed Plan UMC.  The Judicial Council killed it the next day.  Like it or not, our constitution gives bishops the duty of oversight.

Delegates headed home (travel cost, almost $2 million), some embarrassed at having produced little in response to the loss of three million United Methodists in the U.S. since 1970, but serene that they had resisted all attempts to modify the size, cost and duration of General Conference and had protected the church’s bureaucracy. Welcome to church by committee.

Meeting with despondent young clergy at General Conference, I begged them to exercise spiritual discipline, to take their eyes off GC and focus upon the Holy Spirit’s primary arena, the congregations where they will preach next Sunday.  I counseled Adam and Mike to go home and expand the networks being equipped by Church of the Resurrection and Ginghamsburg Church—our sole hope for Holy Spirit orchestrated church-wide renewal.  No thoughtful restructuring, no accountability for growth and discipleship will come out of GC.  Ever.

Cheer up depressed bishops!  Having been resoundingly rebuffed by General Conference, bishops are now free to focus upon their annual conferences and those local churches and productive clergy (many of whom are too busy and too impatient to be delegates to GC) who are responsive to episcopal encouragement for risk-taking, visionary leadership.

While General Conference dithered, the Council of Bishops drastically reorganized, streamlined and economized our work, realigning ourselves to lead vital congregations.  Effective bishops are not awaiting General Conference permission to lead the UMC into a more vital future.  Now that General Conference has snubbed the bishops’ attempt to renew and to lead the general church’s moribund mechanisms, perhaps we can recommit to the historic practices of the episcopacy— preaching, teaching, and guarding the faith.

And the next time one of you has the temerity to whine about waste at General Conference, the loss of a couple of generations of young Christians, the ineffectiveness of a general church board or agency, or the infidelity of Methodism in retreat I will say, “I share your concern.  It’s a shame you weren’t in Tampa.”

The good news is that the mission of Jesus Christ will not be defeated. With us or without us, he shall get the church he demands.

William H. Willimon is bishop of the UMC’s North Alabama Conference and author of the recently released Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Abingdon).


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36 Comments on "Bishop Willimon on GC2012 and ‘church by committee’"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Bishop welcome to the real world of leading real people in real situations. Number one lesson is that leaders ultimately can't change people or systems. People have to choose to change. We can help create healthy environments for spiritual vitality, but people must choose to participate. This why many clergy have felt slighted with all the clergy effectiveness talk because it is basically a sick co-dependent system that Bishops want us to participate in. Now that you all have gotten a taste of what is like to plan, pray, strategize, talk adaptive change, and then nothing happens…you now know what… Read more »
We are all worried that the UMC is dying off–losing many members by the day. The Book of Discipline has enough authorization in it to fulfill what needs to be done without any more legislation or amendment. If the Bishops and District Superintendents would get some back bone or guts and enforce the BOD things would probably be different. I fully agree with rpatrickmoore (above). The Bishops and such want local pastors to change the local church but in many instances give them absolutely no authority nor support to do that. If the local pastor had the support of the… Read more »
I was attending a continuing education event at Lake Junaluska with Bishop Willimon a few years back when Bishop Willimon brought up the issue of clergy effectiveness as being the main hinderance in the UMC growth and effectiveness. The pastors there got visibly and verbally upset. We started pressing for answers on the definition of clergy effectiveness and how this would look when put in place. I openly confronted Bishop Willimon about this saying that our conference bishop was spewing the same rhetoric and that they must be talking about and planning changes in the Council of Bishops. Bishop Willimon… Read more »

I thougt it very interesting (or sad) that the guaranteed appointment was done away with. But what is more alarming, at least to me, is that a definitive and clear definition of "effective" was not decided. As it is now it is a subjective matter, prone to the whims of situational definition. The bishops do not have a good working meaning of "clergy effectiveness" yet, they pushed for the removal of guaranteed appointments. I would also like to see the meaning of "bishop effectiveness."

Mike Bozeman

I think folks like Willimon who write 60 books-all of them good to extraordinary while fulfilling expectations of their pastoral assignments should be able to use the income from the books as they wish. If one percent of bishops and district superintendents can afford three homes on their salaries, I’d be surprised.

Bishop, you missed a few points. Bishops are lacking credibility because we do not see any action on you holding each other accountable. And I saw no action to remove the "lifetime Bishop" security from the Bishops. As an Elder I interpret this to mean that instead of standing as a fellow Elder with a special administrative & Spiritual task, Bishops stand as an elite class with a golden parachute. I also regret that I have often been left to take dramatic steps to improve the church by myself, knowing that If it turned out, there would be many to… Read more »
Oh, and I forgot, 4. Is it not up to whichever bishop is presiding over the plenary session to unilaterally decide which delegates will be called on to speak and which delegates will be ignored? 5. Have significant influence over the clergy from their own respective episcopal areas, by virtue of our appointment system (with this General Conference strengthening bishops' power much further by ending guaranteed appointments)? Furthermore, when ordinary grassroots United Methodists read in the UM Reporter that a group of non-delegate activists led by Amy Delong (of all people!) publicly called on the bishops to do an end-run… Read more »

At least you are an equal opportunity insulter. I think that since you are only 66 you should select an Annual Conference and ask to be appointed to a struggling church, especially a "clergy killer church" and see how difficult parish ministry really is. Be great material for a future book.

I posted other thoughts about this on my blog, namely that what we are seeing is the Death Throes of the Blue Model Church. If you want to see a microcosm of the decaying and death of Blue Model organizations, California is a good example for government and The United Methodist Church for religious bodies. The Blue Model was described by Prof. Walter Russell Mead as, "The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal." The problem is that these things "don’t work anymore, and the gaps between the social system… Read more »
Many times over the last years I have been thankful for Bishop Willimon's insight and willingness to speak out.. I was ashamed to report to my congregation how little GC2012 did. I think he understates the power of the bishops in GC. They are, after all, assigned presidential authority. I watched parts of the video feed and there were times when it was quite obvious that the presiding bishop was steering the debate by selecting who would speak and when, their often nonverbal replies, setting the pace of debate (for instance speeding it up toward calling the question if it… Read more »
While I agree with the spirit of Bishop Willimon's reflection, there are a few areas in which he over-reaches or remembers only selectively. 1. The method of decision-making at General Conference is no longer effective and does not represent much of the church which has moved on to use prayerful discernment to achieve holy conferencing resulting in healthy decision-making. Ask Boards of Ordained Ministry and cabinets who have successfully made this leap. A few years ago, even a bishop, Susan Wolfe Hassinger, led the entire New England Conference to arrive at a monumental decision by using prayerful discernment. Obviously, Roberts… Read more »

Well said Randy! We miss you!

In my 8 years of ministry, I have developed a radical change in personal theology and sense of evangelistic and missional ministry. Having gone through seminary training in weekend course of study, I have a much broader and faith driven undestanding of who we are and whose we are. Micah 6:8, a watch word for a past boy scout convocation at the annual UMM meeting, says, in part, "Has not Yahweh told us how we should live. We are to love kindness, do justice and walk humbly with our God." Jesus himself told us that to do for the least… Read more »
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, bishops. However, is it really fair to say that bishops "have no role in producing General Conference"? Yes, I know bishops cannot serve as delegates, but is it not true that The Council of Bishops: 1. Unilaterally selects the members of the Commission on the General Conference, within certain broad requirements for fair geographic distribution? 2. Unilaterally selects the members of the different General Conference legislative committees (reference, calendar/agenda, etc)? 3. Take turns presiding over plenary sessions of General Conference, with the presiding bishop enjoys tremendous power to effectively give the final word on debatable… Read more »
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