On repairing broken trust in the UMC

By Ricky Harrison, Special Contributor…

Ricky Harrison

The first night of the 2012 General Conference opened with a grand worship service. There were bright lights, cool graphics, beautiful music, abundant prayer shawls and a moving sermon. One of the most moving moments in the service for me was the sight of all of our episcopal leaders, in full vestment, processing behind the cross down the center aisle to the front stage, where the hundreds of active and retired bishops were seated for the service and most of General Conference. It was a beautiful sight to see our clergy leaders, our spiritual shepherds, all gathered and seated in front of us. As I scanned the crowd of faces I saw many bishops whom I knew or recognized, bishops which I held the utmost respect for and admiration of, bishops that I hoped and believed would lead our beloved United Methodist Church into the future with vision and purpose, bearing healthy and vibrant fruit.

That feeling of reverence, awe, and respect (and dare I add even trust?) for those we have lifted up into episcopal leadership only seemed to dissipate as the conference progressed. What quickly became clear to me is that we desire our bishops to lead the Church with a strong vision and prophetic voice, yet we fear giving them the power which would actually allow them to do so.

This became most evident in the debate (no, not discussion, but debate) regarding the non-residential bishop and term limits for bishops. First, the Council of Bishops (CoB) submitted a petition which would allow for a non-residential president of the CoB. What began as an informed presentation by Bishop Goodpaster quickly digressed into an anti-Roman Catholic mud-slinging contest on the floor. Charges of totalitarian Popery were casually thrown around, loaded with emotional and non-rational sentiments. What amazed me the most was not the uneducated remarks that were made publicly on the floor (such as those who didn’t even know enough polity to realize we have a current president of the CoB), or the emotional anti-Catholicism which won out over reasoned arguments, but the overarching culture of fear and distrust which surrounded the entire mess. Needless to say, this petition did not pass.

Then, after the removal of guaranteed appointments had been passed on the consent calendar (to the surprise of many delegates), a piece was brought to the floor regarding the assignment of term limits for bishops. This piece called for bishops to be given an eight-year term limit, with the option for one re-election at Jurisdictional Conference. The fear and distrust experienced in the non-residential bishop debate quickly reared its ugly head again. The debate was again filled with much emotional baggage and not enough rationale discernment.

I must say that I am all for holding our bishops accountable, and if we can end guaranteed appointments for clergy, then surely some form of this rule should apply to bishops as well. However, this particular piece of legislation which assigned term limits seemed more like an act of retaliation than a well thought-out system of accountability. I agree: If a bishop can’t get his or her act together after eight years of service, then he or she shouldn’t be serving in that capacity any longer. However, there was no thought given to what happens to current retired and active bishops, central conference bishops, or how Jurisdictional Conference would handle the sudden increase from electing two or three bishops every four years to electing up to 14 bishops each time in some jurisdictions. It seemed much more like an act of fear than one of rational discernment.

Looking back, I am extremely surprised and disappointed at the broken relationship which exists between our bishops and the rest of the Church. As we are currently going through the process of nominating, interviewing and in a few short months voting on new episcopal leaders, it amazes me that we do not trust the leadership we ourselves put into place. How do we expect to move forward as a Church if we won’t even let the leaders we have put into place guide us?

Now I realize that there are bishops who are incompetent, ineffective, and/or just plain bad at their job, just as there are district superintendents who are incompetent, ineffective, and/or bad at their job, and pastors who are incompetent, ineffective, and/or bad at their job. If one has a bad bishop, DS, or pastor, then one year is way too long to live/work under them (not to mention much damage can occur). But if one has a really good bishop, DS, or pastor, then ten years isn’t even long enough!

So how do we begin to live into a system which holds all of us accountable? How do we have constructive conversations with a bishop when he/she is hurting instead of helping their flock? How do we work through problems that clergy and laity face so that we heal relationships instead of throw mud? How do we protect prophetic voices when they face angry criticism?

I believe it starts with living into a system where transparency and accountability are key. Secret messages are not delivered, back room rants do not occur, closed door bullying sessions are not tolerated. When problems occur, we address them openly instead of attempting to sweep them under the rug or totally ignoring them. When I make an off-handed remark that demeans those I’m angry or frustrated with, you call me out. We begin to forget the “other,” that is so easily critiqued, and begin to address the individual, who is an imperfect human being. Offer advice. Take advice. Trust me. Trust others. Trust yourself.

Perhaps if we began viewing the relationship between bishops, district superintendents, pastors and laity with less regard for our own well-being and more for that of the “other,” we might even begin to recognize the humanity on the other side of the mirror. Perhaps we might begin to love our bad pastor, incompetent district superintendent and ineffective bishop so much that they can’t help but listen, grow and love with us. Perhaps we might realize that our neighbor looks a lot like this leadership figure we are completely fed up with. Perhaps we might begin to live fully once we have truly been able to love wastefully. Perhaps we might even find our way out of the wilderness of fear and distrust and maybe, just maybe, get a glimpse of the promised land ahead.

 This is not a call for blind trust or ignorant love. It is a call for loving accountability. Love me so much that you have no other choice but to hold me accountable – and let others do the same for you.

Ricky Harrison, a student at McMurry, was lead lay delegate to General Conference for the North Texas Conference.

Leave a Reply

9 Comments on "On repairing broken trust in the UMC"

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)
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

Very well said, Mr. Harrison! Loving folks that have hurt you or abused the trust you put in them, is hard. While on the cross if Jesus prayed, "Father forgive them…", then we must follow His example. You have helped remind me of that and to practice unconditional love with accountability. Thank you.

Ricky is correct about the lack of trust. The gestation period has been long and the symptoms obvious for years. I find it surprising that so many people were surprised by its labor pains and delivery in Tampa. The bishops didn't know it? Our bishop says the COB was totally surprised by the lack of support. Really? Are they that out of touch? And why didn't they even recognize the incongruity of presiding over declining congregations where reductions in staff (lay and clergy) leave those remaining asked to do more and more, often for less and less, while the bishops… Read more »

I completely agree, Abril! Every person, lay or clergy, at every level of leadership must be expectef to be fully tranparent and accountable for that transparency and the work that is required for healing the health and trust in this denomination.

Mr. Harrison was raised in the church I serve as senior pastor. His younger sister and his grandfather still attend here, as do his parents when they are not working elsewhere on Sunday morning. His father is a national leader in youth ministry, and as noted above, his mother – a close personal friend – is a provisional deacon who, after struggling mightily with the decision, is living apart from her family for the sake of her call. I assure you that this family is well acquainted with the hurts that the church sometimes inflicts on the people she is… Read more »
creed pogue
Many of our "youth/young adult" leadership are PKs. A number of them are on a clergy track. That is a different perspective from the rank and file laity in the pews who pay the bills. Love, mercy and grace are all important. But, none of them should mean that people who are incompetent should be allowed to continue doing damage to our ministries. The bishops have had (and still have) opportunities to collectively lead. What if they used the positions they have on the boards of the general agencies to demand a refocusing on providing resources to Annual Conferences and… Read more »

This piece was linked by RealClearReligion, so it will be fairly widely read. Yesterday RCR linked to my own, relevant essay about the UMC, "Death Throes of the Blue Model Church."

When the delegates of my conference spoke to us after returning from Tampa, they emphasized how much trust of leaders at all levels has broken down. Every report of the GC's proceedings I read or every verbal report I get from an attendee leads to the same conclusion – that the GC is entirely dominated by hardcore ideologues of all stripes.

Lord, have mercy.


Of course when the local committee on ordination say that UM connectivity is the apportionment process yo have to wonder about the whole hierarchy. Reminds me of the article about the GC dominated by boards and societies whose main concern is keeping their portion of the pie. No, the bishops aren't trusted. Why should they be? because they are Bishops?


Mr. Harrison is a very smart young man, but he clearly has never had his family's livelihood, well being and living arrangements in the hands of a Bishop.


Mr. Harrison's parents have been in ministry most of his life. His mother is a provisional deacon. Even though the deacon appointment process is different from the elder appointment process, his mother is living two hours away from his father and sister, and they are living in two different homes so that she can serve in ministry.

%d bloggers like this: