Don’t blame bishops for General Conference ‘fiasco’

By William H. Willimon, Special Contributor…

Bishop William Willimon

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 the 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 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.” Dr. 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.

Don’t blame bishops

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 $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 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.

Freedom to focus

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 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 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 or without us, he shall get the church he demands.


Bishop Willimon leads the North Alabama Conference. He is the author of the recently released Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Abingdon Press).

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7 Comments on "Don’t blame bishops for General Conference ‘fiasco’"

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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I agree with humbled. I don't think John Wesley would be proud of the Methodist church today. We should be focused on saving souls for Jesus. I think time may be getting short..

Its evident by the tone of this article that the problems with the hierarchy in The UMC cannot be repaired by the hierarchy of the UMC. Bishops and District Superintendents have made a mockery of the positions that the have been so graciously given. Their powers are far too overreaching and have become the main reason that the UMC cannot find its mission focus. In my opinion, and I'm certain many of you agree, there should be a "Simplification Reformation ". The church has become too top heavy similar to our government. Much too much has been wasted on tjese… Read more »
From a small church in rural East Tennessee, I offer the suggestion that the UMC is crying for order, for some semblance of uniformity, something in which we can count on to be ordered in this time of chaos. Our God is Our Rock, and I feel that the church should be an extension of That Rock, something we can depend on, something we can recognize, whether we are in our home church, or if perchance Sunday morning should find us far from home, there would be a open door to a chamber of God's Heart that is recognizeable no… Read more »

So if the local church does poorly we take away the pastors' guaranteed appointment, but if the larger church does poorly we simply say it's not the bishops' fault? What a sham! i.e. shame!

Any idea why we're in crisis?

Bishop Will Will: I always enjoy your commentaries. However, it is a little disingenuous to say the the bishops had (and have) no influence on GC. The bishops are the highest level of leadership in our church! Even without voice and vote at GC, they exert tremendous influence over all aspects of our church structure. That aside, I agree wholeheartedly that our structure is broken, and cannot be tweaked – it has to be radically overturned. There are far too many entrenched interests demanding attention and funds to stay alive. Which has been their sole purpose. Without accountability, the various… Read more »

You can't run a Church by committee. And the presiding Bishop's, as they took a turn directing the votes and action, failed to speak up if they thought something wasn't right. Like the demonstrations on the floor that was allowed. If the Bishop's don't run it (and they don't), we will continue to flounder. Somebody please step up and take charge and responsibility!

I agree with much of what you have written previously and what you have written in this blog post. There are two issues that I’d like to challenge you on. First, I think you inadvertently pointed out two of the biggest flaws in the restructuring plan the bishops brought to GC when you stated, "Though we bishops spent four years—guided by some of the church’s best management minds—devising our Call to Action…”. In my view, the flaws: 1) that it took four years to put together the plan and 2) that the bishops consulted "some of the church's best management… Read more »
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