A Tale of Two Bishops (Part 2)

In this post, I will give a brief description of the office of bishop in The United Methodist Church. I hope that this description is helpful for a broader audience.

When I grew up attending a United Methodist church, I almost never heard about the bishop. Without looking at the record, I don’t know who the resident bishops were in the Troy Annual Conference. The few times I remember “the bishop” being mentioned, my brother and I would turn to each other and say, with eyes wide, “The Bishop!

Despite any comedy sketch from the United Kingdom, for decades I would think of “bishop” as someone in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. This makes sense; the Roman Catholic Church is a larger and older denomination.

The office of bishop in The United Methodist Church has its own distinct features. Ordained elders are elected and consecrated to the office of bishop. The office does not have a separate ordination. Bishops are elected in the United States by Jurisdictional Conferences and outside of the United States by Central Conferences. Each bishop is then assigned a residence.

Bishops have obligations to preside over Annual Conference sessions, but the Annual Conference ultimately has the authority to decide who is admitted as a ministerial member. The office of bishop does hold power, and that is “almost entirely from the power of appointment of all ministerial members of the Annual Conference.” I will quote directly from The Organization of The United Methodist Church (Revised 1985 Edition) by Jack M. Tuell (page 109):

Though consultation with the cabinet, the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee, and the person involved is required, the actual appointment is the bishop’s prerogative. He or she makes it and bears responsibility for it. This single fact is the basis of much episcopal power, and explains an influence in many areas of the church’s life where, according to the cold print of the Discipline, a bishop has no voice at all. Add to this appointive power the responsibility for making certain nominations of personnel for general church boards and agencies and offices, and the basis for episcopal power is pretty well laid.

Actually, United Methodists are agreed on the whole that their bishops need this power and that it is well placed. The appointive system has worked well throughout its history, both for ministers and for churches. While it may sound arbitrary and dictatorial, in actual practice it is not. Most bishops and their cabinets are involved throughout most of the year in the painstaking work of appointment making. This involves countless conferences with individual ministers and with Pastor-Parish Relations Committees. Many false starts are made—that is, bishop and cabinet will leave a meeting thinking they have worked out a set of appointments that will stick; but consultations that take place before they next meet reveal that it won’t work, so they must start again from scratch. While such a process is difficult and time-consuming, it finally results in appointments which are likely to be right. And it certainly is a far cry from the myth that appointments are arbitrarily made by the bishop. True, he or she must say the final word and take the final responsibility, but only after a thorough process that has considered the needs of each church and the needs of each minister. More than one minister has said, “I would rather place my future in the hands of a United Methodist bishop and cabinet than anyone I know,” and most ministers would agree. The power of appointment is certainly considered a sacred trust and a matter of stewardship by our bishops.

The above quote is from Bishop Tuell in 1985.

The elections of bishops within the United States and outside of the United States are not the same. This difference is in the Church Constitution (¶ 50). Bishops within the United States (in Jurisdictional Conferences) are elected only once for life. Outside of the United States (in Central Conferences), the Central Conference determines the tenure.

There are also ways in which Central Conferences can make “changes and adaptations” to the Discipline. I turn to this issue in my next post.