Transition Time – UM bishops leaning forward, looking back

As top official for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey bounced back and forth between New York, where UMCOR is based, and Houston, where she and her husband own a home and she was a longtime pastor in the Texas Conference.

But on July 19 she became Bishop Harvey, elected in early balloting by delegates of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference.

Now she’s trying to vacate her New York apartment, sell her house in Houston and give herself a crash course on the Louisiana Conference, which she’s been assigned to lead.

“I’m trying to read up and at the same time trying to breathe and get centered,” she said. “I know, come Sept. 1, I have to hit the ground running.”

Basketball players must learn to play “in transition,” as coaches-turned-commentators say, and every four years many United Methodist bishops face the same challenge.

Bishop Gary Mueller received many hugs Aug. 12, after preaching a farewell sermon at First UMC in Plano, Texas, where he’s been pastor for the last 10 years. He was elected bishop last month and begins as leader of the Arkansas Conference on Sept. 1. UMR PHOTO BY LIZ APPLEGATE

Last month, 11 clergy were elected bishop by U.S. jurisdictions, and given an area to oversee. Some 15 already-serving bishops were reassigned.

But none of these report for their new jobs until Sept. 1, creating an odd, betwixt-and-between period.

“For about a month, you live in two worlds,” said Bishop Ken Carter, elected July 18 at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference.

Officially, those elected bishops are immediately relieved of the UMC assignments they had. The reality tends to be different.

“The moment I was elected, I was no longer their pastor,” Bishop Gary Mueller said of First UMC in Plano, Texas, where he worked 10 years. He adds: “I was obviously helping with some transitional things.”

Bishop Carter stopped being a district superintendent in Western North Carolina upon his election. But he felt a special responsibility to the pastors who had been under him and had been recently assigned to churches that are new to them.

So, in the midst of getting ready to lead the Florida Conference, he’s been visiting those pastors in their new settings.

Bishop Harvey wrote a “what if” memo some months back, to help her and the UMCOR staff have a smooth handoff of her duties in case she got elected. She said she still has had to “clean up some details” and also acknowledges “a little separation anxiety” at disengaging.

Bishops make $135,880 annually and get free housing, so by clergy (or most Americans’) standards they are well compensated. When a new or remaining bishop has to move, the General Council on Finance and Administration steps in and gets the job done.

But as with clergy itinerancy, election and assignment as bishop guarantees a certain amount of personal disruption, including for the family.

Bishop Harvey’s husband, Dean Alan Harvey, will be moving his financial planning business to Baton Rouge, to be with her. He’s a sole proprietor, who requires mainly a computer and telephone; so they’re pretty confident that will work.

Bishop Bill McAlilly said one of the first calls his wife, Lynn, made after his recent election at the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference was to her principal back in Mississippi.

“She said, ‘You’re going to have to find a new second-grade teacher,’” he recalled.

While she may return to teaching, he said, she won’t be doing so in their first stretch in Nashville, where he’ll oversee the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences.

Most new and reassigned bishops are of a certain age, meaning that if they have kids, they’re grown. That makes moving easier.

But the youngest of the new group, Bishop Debbie Wallace-Padgett, 46, isn’t so lucky.

“The biggest challenge in this transition period is working out logistical matters with family, especially with our son who is a high school senior,” she said.

Bishop Padgett, who leaves St. Luke UMC in Lexington, Ky., to lead the North Alabama Conference, is married to the Rev. Lee Padgett, who has spent 24 years in camp and retreat center ministries in Kentucky.

“He has not yet discerned the specifics about what is next for him,” she said. “But we are sure that he will be involved in some form of ministry.”

Time for advice

Formal training for new bishops will come Sept. 18-21, at a retreat center outside Phoenix. Veteran bishops will tutor them in specific subjects. Bishop Grant Hagiya, who went through the training four years ago, will talk about leadership.

“I’ll focus quite a bit on the identity you want to establish as bishop … and I’ll talk about leadership models,” he said.

Bishop Hagiya plans to have the new bishops and their spouses complete a StrengthsFinder test ahead of time, and he’ll also have them read works on leadership by Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky.

It’s already a season for advice seeking and giving. The new bishops of the South Central Jurisdiction and their spouses met for five hours with that jurisdiction’s veteran bishops, after a July 21 consecration service in Oklahoma City.

San Antonio Area Bishop Jim Dorff had been through a similar session when elected four years ago.

“All the things I heard in the orientation, I didn’t take as seriously as I should have,” he said. “They were right about all the concerns, the time management, managing the calendar, keeping your spiritual life intact.”

That latter point is the one stressed by Bishop Mike Lowry of the Central Texas Conference.

“The job can eat you up if you don’t stay spiritually healthy and connected to Christ,” he said.

Bishop Lindsey Davis (standing) took part in the consecration service
for new episcopal leaders in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, including
Bishop Ken Carter (kneeling, left) and Bishop Jonathan Holston.

Veteran bishops are also quick to encourage new bishops to take time off during this transition period.

“Bishop [Robert] Schnase in particular just emphasized the need to take seven days away, at a minimum,” said Bishop Mueller.

But the temptation is to lean forward into the new assignment, try to get ahead, like some eager student who buys the textbook ahead of time, and begins to cram.

Bishop Carter is just back from a two-day visit to Lakeland, Fla., where he met with the cabinet he’ll be inheriting. A voracious reader, he’s also been seeking out books about Florida, adding, among others, John McPhee’s classic Oranges to his list.

Bishop Carter is fired up, not least because his wife, Pam, has long been involved in ministry to Haiti, and the Florida Conference has close ties to that country as well as Haitians in UM churches in the state.

But he also hasn’t minimized the leap he’ll be making from district superintendent to leader of a conference that stretches 700 miles and encompasses some 740 congregations and 320,000 members.

“While I have visited Florida, vacationed there, attended conferences there, and have friends and a few relatives there, I’m also aware that I do not know the culture of the conference, and I’m pretty open about the learning curve,” he said.

Experienced bishops who have been reassigned have a certain level of confidence, but  still face the hassle of moving and the need to learn quickly a new episcopal area. Bishop John Schol will move from Baltimore-Washington to the New Jersey Area. By Sept. 1, he expects to have had eight hours of talks with Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, who is moving from New Jersey to the New England Conference.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño is moving from the Desert Southwest Conference, based in Phoenix, to the Cal-Pac Conference, based in Los Angeles.

“I have learned a great deal from the good and faithful people of the Phoenix Area,” she said. “Serving in the L.A. Area, however, will require that I organize my time differently, use media connections more, learn another language or two and learn about doing ministry in an area that is indeed the U.S. Western gateway to the rest of the world.”

Tough job

In his recent memoir Bishop, Bishop Will Willimon, who is retiring as leader of the North Alabama Conference, writes of a “new breed” of UM bishop, bent on leading a reform movement as well as managing personnel in their areas.

Certainly the new bishops sound in tune with that.

“We have got to recover a sense of what it really means to be the presence and witness of United Methodists, of the Wesleyan movement, in the communities we serve,” said newly elected Bishop Mike McKee, who will oversee the North Texas Conferences. “We cannot continue to be the church we have been.”

Indeed, bishops have little choice but to shake things up, said the Rev. Gil Rendle, a leadership consultant with the Texas Methodist Foundation and author of the influential book Journey in the Wilderness.

The UMC, like other denominations, has been in a steady decline in membership and attendance in the United States, with forecasts of a “death tsunami” and attendant financial collapse.

“If we don’t go through change, we’re at an unsustainable point,” said Dr. Rendle, who applauds the bishops for backing the Call to Action initiative, including its focus on boosting the number of vital congregations.

Dr. Rendle also describes the job of bishop as “amazingly difficult,” since it combines trying to bring about systemic change in a denomination torn by such issues as homosexuality, while also requiring personnel manager tasks, such as making clergy appointments and handling complaints against clergy.

Expectations of bishops have risen as well, as was seen when the South Central Jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee recently voted to retire involuntarily Bishop Earl Bledsoe, based on concerns about his administrative ability and trustworthiness. (He has appealed the action the UMC Judicial Council.)

If the new and reassigned bishops feel daunted, they aren’t showing it. Bishop McAlilly was so eager to get acquainted with his new episcopal area that he drove to its Nashville headquarters straight from Lake Junaluska, after his consecration.

Bishop McAlilly is proving diplomatic as well as enthusiastic. Asked in a phone interview if one country music is one of the appeals for him of Nashville and the Tennessee Conference, he said it was, and noted that at age 17 he visited the Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry.

Then he quickly made a nod toward the other conference he’ll lead, the Memphis Conference, with its rich blues tradition.

“I like Beale Street too!” he said.

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