By Ricky Harrison, Special Contributor…
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 submitted a petition which would allow for a non-residential president of the COB. What began as an informed presentation by Bishop Larry Goodpaster quickly digressed into an anti-Roman Catholic mudslinging 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), legislation was brought to the floor regarding the assignment of term limits for bishops. This 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 am all for holding 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 legislation seemed more like retaliation than a well thought-out system of accountability.
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. But if one has a really good bishop, DS or pastor, then 10 years isn’t 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, backroom 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 even find our way out of the wilderness of fear and distrust and maybe, just maybe, get a glimpse of the promised land ahead.
Mr. Harrison, a student at UMC-affiliated McMurry University, was lead lay delegate to General Conference for the North Texas Conference.