Commentary: It’s time to re-think life tenure for U.S. bishops

By Joseph Stains, Special Contributor…

One of the less-noted dialogues of General Conference 2012 that comes home for further review is the American way of electing bishops, untested, for lifelong tenure through retirement. While we have clung to this hierarchical model from our Anglo-Catholic forbears, worldwide United Methodism is bringing us fresh vision of shared servant ministry that compels us to rethink what we expect of fellow elders who assume the title of bishop. Term episcopacy, the electing of bishops for defined periods of eight years or less at a time, is the way of life among United Methodists elsewhere, and is finding its way into conversations stateside as well. The conversation comprises some unfinished business from Tampa.

Joseph Stains

Models for ending instant lifetime tenure for American bishops were there, and they did not play badly. Despite discouraging predictions regarding its chances, and the concerted resistance it received in its assigned legislative group, a proposal reached the floor, received civil debate and mustered a slim majority vote from the General Conference. As a constitutional change, though, it fell short of the two-thirds majority needed, and its groundbreaking message was lost among more headlined interests.

But now we can take a more measured look at this fresh vision that tests the value of electing American bishops instantly for life rather than for defined terms. Maverick as it may sound to some, term episcopacy in some form is the norm for United Methodists and their close cousins everywhere in the non-U.S. world. It was the standard practice of one of our parent denominations, and has been endorsed by such respected retired bishops as Will Willimon. In 2016, the majority of General Conference attendees may come from places served by term-elected bishops.

The norm? Yes, it is true now. Back in 1968, the uniting General Conference ended the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) model of term elections in favor of the former American Methodist model of instant life tenure in all U.S. jurisdictions, and allowed the rest of the world to choose whatever models they preferred, a constitutional double standard that remains.

And choose they did. Nearly everyone else dismissed instant life tenure, and flourished.  Forty years later, the only regional conference in the world to mimic the American model of tenure for bishops – West Africa—dropped it in favor of a 12-year lifetime cap on episcopal service. Today, the few regional conferences offering any form of lifetime tenure (only after a first term of service) are in other parts of Africa; and one of those, East Africa, is now facing an episcopal leadership crisis of its own.

If we can transcend our institutional conservatism for a moment, it should be noted that there are risks involved in electing to lifelong vocation someone who has never served thus before. Strong credentials as a pastor, even as a regional leader, do not always translate into effective leadership as a bishop. Others who interview less effectively may become outstanding leaders in practice. Some may actively seek the position with less than ideal motives, while others of exemplary spirit may bypass service as bishop out of reluctance to sign their lives away to so singular a role.

Time can also play havoc with our priorities as churches and leaders. The church’s needs for leadership style can shift dramatically over a decade or so, as can the midlife vision of any great leader whose spirit is inspired by new vocational pursuit. Both entities may find themselves constricted by a model of lifetime obligation to a previous covenant, however dated its purposes may become.

Election to terms of episcopal service can allow the flexibility our church badly needs in times of dramatic change. If a new bishop or the conference served finds the vocational match less ideal than hoped, opting out of the next quadrennial election provides a graceful departure; while effective, well-matched leadership may be extended through reelection or even recall to service for as many quadrennia as appropriate.

There are also issues of equity, both influential and financial. The disparity of influence between American bishops with long tenure and world colleagues guaranteed less time will likely become an increasing concern in the next decade. The world church most of us say we want will require a greater provision for mutual respect and equivalent influence among leaders. And if we find ourselves economically strained by the attrition predicted in the Call to Action, then an American church with term episcopacy would not have to subsidize lifelong active and retired bishops, a generous provision which their former overseas colleagues do not presume.

There are risks in the new paradigm. What impact it may have on the bishop’s office is unclear. Some have worried aloud that reelection would politicize the office, as bishops would constantly be wary of their policies’ impact on a coming election. Others counter that the office is already too politicized, as a vocational prize to be campaigned for. In this case, removal of the instant lifetime guarantee can make the office a less-coveted prize to the ambitious, while providing to the larger church a practical accountability that has been lacking. Another concern, expressed in the General Conference debate, was that bishops facing reelection would be “less free to speak prophetically.” African and European members of the conference seemed less impressed with this argument than Americans.

Above all, we must recognize that change in our church and its leadership is inevitable, and the time for exploring alternative models for episcopal leadership, and its tenure, is the present. If we in the U.S. approach the next General Conference unprepared for this conversation, it will likely happen anyway, energized by a majority with more incentive and experience in the choices involved than we have. Let our clergy and laity, our boards and agencies, begin now to rethink church on this level as seriously as we have on so many others.

The Rev. Stains is pastor of Homer City UMC in Homer City, Pa.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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