Dear Bishop Willimon,
This morning the net was abuzz with commentary about your UMR essay “Church By Committee.” Frankly there was little in the article that surprised me for I’ve known you long enough to know of your disdain for the system that we are both part of. I have heard you speak pretty disparagingly about our shared denomination both “within the family,” and depressingly enough to me, with folks outside the United Methodist fold, offering them permission to dis’ our communion without a great deal of justification for why you choose to remain a part of the people called United Methodist. There was nothing in your commentary that I haven’t heard before.
You are a Bishop in our church, and I respect the position that you hold as a church leader. While I have known you since before you were elected to that office, I trust the discernment of the Southeast Jurisdiction representatives who believed that you possessed the gifts to hold the office of Bishop, and I respect your opinions (even agreeing with some of them).
And yet, with all due respect, as I read through your post, I found so many points of disagreement that I’m not sure really where to begin.
Actually, I DO know where to begin — with your conclusion that the discernment of the Body of Christ as reflected in the General Conference is inadequate, and that we should simply allow the Bishop’s to work things out.
And you wonder why there is a trust issue in the UMC?
You are right — the General Conference didn’t fully trust the Council of Bishops, and that’s because the church as a whole isn’t fully sure that the Council of Bishops can be trusted. Don’t put the burden of this solely at the feet of the 1000 delegates of General Conference, for they simply represented a much larger mistrust of a Council that they aren’t really sure can be trusted.
You offer some great examples of why that is the case. Take your commentary on the Call to Action process initiated by the Council of Bishops. You suggest that the GC2012 disregarded four years of work “…guided by some of the church’s best management minds…” And yet, when those of us in the hinterlands reviewed the work, we found a plan that was guided in part by a systemic survivor, and which contained conclusions that were not completely supported by the research. Apparently our best church management minds weren’t so great after all, for they failed to invite participation from any of our experts in church polity to see if what they were proposing would likely pass constitutional muster (it didn’t) and they clearly failed to recognize the changing nature of our church in their failure to invite participation from leaders outside the U.S. If the Bishops want to take credit for the CTA/IOT plan (which it sounds like you want to do) you fell short in many ways in trying to get something that the General Conference could embrace and adopt.
But the lack of trust has been present for far longer than that. The fact is that clergy and congregations don’t fully trust the bishops because we’ve experienced bishops at their worst. We’ve seen appointments made for political reasons rather than missional ones. We’ve seen pastors removed for speaking prophetically because folks with money convinced the bishop to remove him rather than the bishop standing up for the gospel. We’ve seen bishops engaged again and again in shutting down creative and exciting ministries that have great kingdom potential, but fall outside of the norms of what a church is supposed to look like under our current system. Congregations have experienced bishops failing to take the time to understand their issues and making appointments that are doomed to fail from the beginning, and clergy have experienced episcopal leaders seem to have little compassion for the struggles they face in serving “clergy killer” congregations.
Most of all we have seen a Council of Bishops who have spent their careers as the consummate systemic insiders. For all of the rhetoric of creative leadership, many (if not most of you) have spent years serving on the very committees and boards that have failed to embrace change. The current boards and agencies, which have been largely groups that rubber stamped staff initiatives and General Secretary priorities, have not been held accountable even though it is Council of Bishop members who are, by and large, the presidents of those governing boards. The bishop, more often than not, are a body who are invested in the same political process that got them elected in the first place, a network of relationships that seems unable to truly embrace change.
And we’re supposed to trust you now?
Trust, as I understand it, rarely comes through authority imposed from above, but rather through the experience of one over time. Yes, we respect the office and place ourselves under your authority . . . but trust can only be given when it’s earned, and in far too many cases the expectation of blind obedience to power has ruled the day at the expense of building trust.
The Turmoil in Tampa was not the problem, although it was certainly a reflection of the problem. Our problems are far deeper, seen in the failure to truly talk about Christ’s call to be engaged in forming disciples and focusing again (as we’ve done since the very beginning of the Methodist Episcopal Church) on how we structure ourselves. We fail to have a common understanding of the task before us, and in the decline that comes from that failure, the fingers start pointing in all directions as we search for someone to blame. In the blame game, trust is eroded even further, and we ALL miss out on the opportunity God gives us.
Yes, we have a broken system, and it is in our best interest to unpack that brokenness to discern if there is any means of fixing it. But as important will be our efforts to attempt to rebuild trust — between lay and clergy, conservative and liberal, U.S. and Central Conferences, and between the Council of Bishops and pretty much everyone else. Without addressing the issue of trust, our ability to function as a communion is indeed doomed to fail.
I pray that as you soon watch from afar in the ultimate insider/outsider role as a retired bishop, you might work to discern a means by which the breach of trust can be fixed. That would be, in my honest opinion, the greatest legacy you could leave the United Methodist Church.
Thanks again for your commentary. May God bless you in your new endeavor.
The Rev. Jay Voorhees is a UM pastor in Nashville, Tenn.