Ten reasons why UM bishops shouldn’t meet in private – from a retired bishop

Bishop Joe Pennel

By Joe E. Pennel Jr., Special Contributor…

As one of the retired bishops I join those who are concerned about the active bishops meeting as a closed “forum,” as they are scheduled to do in San Diego from May 5-8. The word “forum” is a public word. Its derivation comes from the open space or market place in an ancient Roman city. It is also used by organizations that hold public meetings for reflections and discussions around themes of common interest.

It should be noted that the active bishops are scheduled to meet as a forum in 2013, 2014 and 2015.  “Forum” does not mean closed meeting. It means just the opposite. I want to suggest several reasons why the United Methodist Church would be more vital if this did not happen.

First, it is advantageous for believers to experience the theological and geographical diversity of the bishops. In many ways the meetings are like the entire church reduced to one room.  If we look carefully we experience the Christ who transcends our differences to make us one.

Second, the global nature of the church is experienced in these meetings. It does no harm for us to be open to this experience.

Third, it is restoring to witness how active bishops reflect theologically on issues such as sexuality, ordination, evangelism and the mission of the church in the world. Having complete transparency on these and other opportunities will strengthen the witness of the United Methodist Church.

Fourth, others can learn how to share and work with best practices by watching how the bishops go about this important task. Why not have these best practices published by our religious press so that all could benefit? The presence of retired bishops could also contribute to best practices since experience is one of our great teachers. Practices that strengthened our witness in the past might also be employed today.

Fifth, we are living in a time when there is a growing interest in spiritual retreats. More and more Christians are interested in prayer, meditation, searching the Scriptures and keeping the spiritual disciplines. Others could be helped and informed by how the bishops engage the inner life. Bishop Rosemarie Wenner of Germany, president of the council, described such meetings as “mainly spiritual retreats.” If this is true, why should anyone be excluded from such opportunities to grow in grace? Modeling spirituality for the church is a genuine need. Mr. Wesley taught us that social concern grows out of vital piety.

Sixth, it could be beneficial if the whole church could witness how the bishops labor to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I know from my experience that the bishops are committed to this mission. Why close the meeting so that others cannot experience the fervor around this mandate? Making disciples is one of the ways that we practice the ministry of reconciliation.

Seventh, I doubt that the bishops would suggest closed meetings for local congregations. I say this because the Christian religion is by its very nature a communal religion. We want persons to be fully engaged in the community of faith. The communal nature of Methodism is compromised by not having open minds, open hearts and open doors.

Eighth, it is worth noting that the retired bishops are also excluded from the meetings of the forum.  We are not residential but we are active. Retired bishops serve as professors, chaplains, writers, consultants, interim pastors, handlers of complaints and spiritual directors. Our experiences could contribute to the conversation in ways that might be helpful to all concerned. In a word, some of us would gladly serve as a resource to both the active and retired bishops.

Ninth, the forum does not carry out the intention of Paragraph 4 of our constitution. It states: “In the United Methodist Church, no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition.” In my opinion, the word “structured” is the key word as it relates to closed meetings.

Tenth, the high purpose of the Church is to reconcile people to God and to each other after the example of Christ. All that we do should be done in the spirit of reconciliation. I believe that we can better practice reconciliation by being open in all of our practices. I have been in Council of Bishops meetings when there have been serious theological differences between bishops, aired at the microphone with great passion. After the adjournment I have seen the very same bishops hug each other as an expression of love for God and neighbor.

Deep commitment

I want to conclude this piece by saying two things. First the Council is made up of persons of deep commitment to the mission of the United Methodist Church. These persons, as a group, want to lead the Church to be an instrument through which Christ can work.

Secondly, there are times when the meetings do need to be closed because of delicate needs and issues that affect the soul of the church. There should be a place and a time to adjourn into closed session but having closed meetings contradicts the spirit of Wesley when he said, “do all the good you can, by all of the means you can, in all of the ways you can, in all of the places you can, at all of the times you can, to all of the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

Retired UM Bishop Pennel is a professor of the practice of leadership at Vanderbilt Divinity School.


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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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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As previously stated in a similar article at another UM site, closed meetings suggest secrecy. Throughout my 46 years in pastoral ministry, I have witnessed the increase of mistrust, suspicion, hostility and low morale, largely attributable to organizational secrecy. While the bishops are, no doubt, well-intentioned and caring shepherds, they may unwittingly be playing into the confusion that secrecy yields. A time of widespread institutional mistrust does not gladly receive guidance or even encouragement from those leaders who conspire in secret. Thank you, Bishop Pennel, for your keen observations.


The active bishops of The United Methodist Church need some space to think, reflect and react with each other WITHOUT the prying eyes of the church press upon them. They are not above the Discipline. The Discipline does not require the bishops to open their meetings. Guest are there by invitation. From what I understand, this is NOT an official gathering of the Council of Bishops to do the work of the church, but a more reflective meeting of active bishops. Give them a break.


By having a closed meeting, have the Bishops become a law unto themselves? Are they now above what the Discipline requires/prohibits?

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