Silencing Our Leaders: The Demotion of UMC Bishops



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At the United Methodist Church’s 2004 General Conference, Rev. Bill McAlilly of Mississippi stood on the Conference floor to represent a group he referred to as the “Methodist Middle.” His statement about unity and the sin of silence was profound:

The faithful United Methodists who are not represented or identified with any coalition group, those of us who are neither on the right or on the left, must be included at the table. More often than not, we are silent, and perhaps that’s our sin. But we fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as ‘the opposition.’ If those of us in the middle can contain those on either side, maybe we can find the unity we seek.

Eight years later, he was elected as a bishop. That would ensure that he would never make a statement like this again at the UMC General Conference. He was effectively silenced.

Instead, he came under fire at the 2016 General Conference, accused of bias in the way he presided over a conference session. This happened because the role of our bishops at General Conference is to be neutral facilitators of parliamentary procedure in its most dense and nuanced form. Their roles at annual, jurisdictional and central conferences are much the same, by what I have observed.

Can we stop and all acknowledge that this is absurd?

We take some of our strongest leaders, elect them to our highest office, then expect them to come to our most important gatherings and not lead. Does any other organization in the world do this?

Not only do we ask them not to lead, but instead we put them in the uncomfortable position of acting as expert parliamentarians. Is this really what we need from our bishops? Is this why we elected these faithful men and women to these positions? If so, our first questions to episcopal candidates should not be about their character or their theology. We should ask them instead whether a motion to end debate is debatable, and whether it requires a majority or 2/3. (For episcopal aspirants, the answers are no and 2/3.)

This has gotten so ludicrous that at our most recent General Conference, delegates voted on a motion for the bishops to lead. We voted about whether our bishops should actually offer leadership. During that discussion, Rev. Tom Berlin remarked, “This morning, Bishop Ough said that at General Conference, the role of the bishop was to preside. Quite frankly, Bishop, we think it’s your role to lead. We are asking for your leadership.”

It is mystifying that anyone had to say those words. Imagine the United States taking a vote on whether our President should offer leadership. Imagine Facebook taking a vote on whether Mark Zuckerberg should offer leadership. Imagine your church taking a vote on whether its pastor should offer leadership.

We elected Bill McAlilly to serve as a bishop based on his leadership in the Church. Then we removed him from the conference floor, where he had boldly stood and spoken at previous conferences, and we placed him in the presiding chair to determine which should come first, a speech against or a point of order. What a bizarre way to handle leadership!

More often than not, we are silent,” McAlilly had said years before, “and perhaps that’s our sin.” If this statement applies to our delegates, should it not apply to our bishops, as well?

Is facilitating the will of the people the best leadership our highest-elected leaders have to offer? Do they have no direction to offer us? No word that may attempt to bring opposing sides together? Surely the leadership they offered as pastors and delegates was more than this. Why have we silenced them now?

Our Book of Discipline stipulates that one role of our bishops is to “preside in the general, jurisdictional, central, and annual conferences” ( 415). But it also stipulates that they are responsible for “Leadership––Spiritual and Temporal” ( 414). Note that these are listed as separate paragraphs. Because presiding is not leading. Nowhere do I find the suggestion that our bishops should abdicate their leadership duties at our most important conferences, so that they may instead preside there. But perhaps we see these two roles as conflicting. How can someone preside without bias while offering leadership and direction? If this is the case, I suspect I speak for the majority when I say that we need our bishops’ leadership more than their presiding. We can find others to preside for us. We must expect our bishops to lead.

A simple proposal: let’s hire a trained parliamentarian for our next General Conference (whether 2020 or specially called). That role is an illogical and cumbersome burden to place on our bishops. They don’t need to be the world’s greatest experts in parliamentary procedure, and we don’t need to consume their time and energy with training in that skill. What we do need is their leadership and voice. And we shouldn’t have to take votes to request it.

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Why the Wesleyan Covenant Association? a guest post by Bill T. Arnold

wesley stained

A note of introduction from Teddy:

By the standard definition of the word, the United Methodist Church is in turmoil––a state of high confusion and uncertainty. Short of a miraculous move of God, we will not achieve peace quickly or easily. In times like this, I’m especially thankful for those who risk to lead. I’m thankful for those who show a deep love and respect for our Church and its institution and an equally deep love and respect for people, regardless of agreement on issues. I believe peace––slow and hard, though it may be––will require these kinds of leaders.

Because of that, I want to share with you a guest post from Dr. Bill Arnold. I think you’ll hear in this post all of those things I listed above. If his leadership reflects the tone and leadership of the newly forming Wesleyan Covenant Association, I have high hopes for what may happen through that alliance.


Why the Wesleyan Covenant Association?
by Bill T. Arnold

The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) is a new alliance of congregations, pastors, and laypeople, coming together to enhance and support vibrant, scriptural Christianity within United Methodism. (For more, see here.)

The question for many is why? Why form the WCA? And why now?

I have been involved with the WCA since its beginning, and will participate in the launch event in Chicago, October 7. My reasons are complicated, and reach back to my ordination as an elder in the Church, and beyond.

When I was ordained in the UMC, I answered certain familiar questions that many have answered before me. These are part of what we call the “Historic Examination for Admission into Full Connection” as an elder in the church (Book of Discipline, paragraph 336). These questions were formulated by John Wesley and have been asked of every Methodist preacher from the beginning with little change. They are, of course, “historic” and are therefore not obligatory as official polity. Few would insist, for example, that every Methodist minister must recommend fasting and abstinence “both by precept and example” (question #16). And yet, while not official polity, they are treasures left to us by Father John himself, and they contain wonderful insight into what we ought to be and do as Methodist clergy (such as diligently instructing “the children in every place,” #14). Along these lines, I find especially instructive the following three, which seem as relevant now as in Wesley’s day (questions ##11–13).

Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
Do you approve our Church government and polity?
Will you support and maintain them?

In the context of Methodism’s early history, one of the reasons these questions were asked was to address the debate between episcopal forms of government versus congregational forms. As a United Methodist, I continue to believe the episcopal form of church governance is preferable. In this, I agree with John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit” in which he embraced an episcopal form of government as scriptural and apostolic. I have been privileged to serve as a member of the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s Committee on Episcopacy for four years. I have seen firsthand the task of our bishops, and I think I have a good understanding of the challenging role bishops have in the Church. I stand in awe and appreciation of our SEJ bishops and I am grateful for the leadership they provide.

But of course, these “historic” questions also relate to the concept of accountability. One of the many beauties of early Methodism was the accountability built into being a Methodist Christian. Even now, we have accountability built into the system all along the way (theoretically), from General Conference (and the decisions it makes contained in the Book of Discipline), through the annual and charge conferences, into the life of every local church. I love our connectedness, and the strength in ministry it provides. And that’s part of why I answered “yes” to the historic questions.

Studied United Methodist discipline and polity? Check.
Approve our government and polity? Check.
Support and maintain them? Check.

So how does all this relate to the WCA? Some pastors, local churches, and conferences in the UMC, have decided, with deliberate forethought, that they can no longer approve our church’s government and polity.

General Conference 2016 did not alter our views on human sexuality. And yet, since the conclusion of General Conference in Portland this May, a number of boards of ordained ministry in some annual conferences have said they will no longer uphold the ordination standards prescribed in the Book of Discipline. Others have declared they stand in “non-compliance” with the General Conference on the question of same-sex weddings and ordination of practicing LGBT+ candidates for ministry. On July 15, the Western Jurisdiction elected a married lesbian as bishop, who will assume an episcopal role in the Mountain Sky Area September 1 (being the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Annual Conferences).

By contrast, the General Conference did, in fact, change our Church’s relationship with the abortion-rights advocacy group “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice,” by requiring our boards and agencies to withdraw from it. Almost immediately, several annual conferences, in deliberate defiance of the intent and will of the General Conference, voted to join the RCRC.

The accountability of our polity is broken. Our Book of Discipline is no longer accepted as an agreed upon form of administration, holding our Church together as one.

On the one hand, part of me understands and even respects the decision by some United Methodists to declare their open rebellion against the General Conference. They have fought these fights for many decades. They feel the US culture and popular opinion has changed in their favor, and they believe they are standing in a prophetic tradition that requires these actions. They have had enough. They think the UMC is wrong, and needs to be forced into changing its positions.

I hope those United Methodists will allow me to disagree civilly. I think the changes in US culture and popular opinion are alarming and reflect our broken society as much as anything. Besides, I think such cultural changes are irrelevant to the Church’s position on human sexuality. Fifty years ago during the sexual revolution, the Church failed to articulate and defend a consistent foundation for sexual ethics. As a result, the UMC’s current standards for ordination and our affirmation of Christian marriage (joining one man and one woman in union for life) appear to many to be hopelessly out of step with the times. But I believe these are biblical and theological mandates, and in the best parts of Christian history, the Church has stood for these principles. The burden of proof for changing those standards must rest squarely on the foundation of clear and compelling biblical exegesis. So far, I have been unconvinced such a case can be made. I also believe the Church is being called to a more proactive, loving, and robust ministry to persons experiencing same-sex attraction. With regard to the UMC specifically, I grieve over the loss of accountability in our Church’s governance and polity, without which we cannot move forward as a unified branch of the Wesleyan movement.

And so, at this moment in our Church’s history, many have publicly announced their decision to break from the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church. I have chosen this venue, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, as a place to say, just as publicly, that I support and maintain that governance and polity. Through the WCA, I commit myself to uphold and maintain the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church.

The WCA is nothing more for me than a way to embrace Methodism. I love our Church. I love its rituals, its history and heritage, and I love its Wesleyan theology. In short, I love being United Methodist. Other than the influence of my godly parents, God worked through The United Methodist Church more than anything else to redeem my life, nurture my faith, teach me the Scriptures, confirm my calling, and ordain me to ministry.

The WCA is a way of saying all this publicly – of recommitting myself to my ordination vows. I want to be a good Methodist. At this point in time, that means participating in the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

If you agree and are able to join me, I hope you will make your way to Chicago October 7, for this special launch event. You can read our faith statement here and register here.

My thanks again to Bill for his strong leadership and allowing me to share this article here.

What can you do now?

  1. Register for the WCA launch event.
  2. Please consider sharing this post with others. Share on Facebook. Share on Twitter. Share by email.
  3. And of course, I’d be honored if you would subscribe to this blog. I post about the UMC rather often (see a few of those below).

The Sheep and the Goats — a different perspective

I come to so many Bible passages believing that I know what they’re about, and then I find something altogether different. Joel Green says, “The first step is a close reading of the text.” That involves not assuming I already have all the answers. Here’s another perspective on a passage I always thought I understood––Jesus’ discourse on the sheep and the goats.

Here’s the passage:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I don’t think this passage is about Jesus encouraging his disciples to take care of the poor and needy. Good thing to do! We can point to plenty of places in Scripture and say, “We need to care for the poor and needy! We must!” But I don’t think it’s the main thing happening here…

Sheep and the Goats — receiving Christ

This whole address that Jesus is giving in Matthew 25 begins a chapter earlier. Look how it begins there:

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3)

If you have a Bible that uses red letters to show Jesus’ words, everything from this point to the end of our passage on the sheep and the goats is red. The disciples ask Jesus this question––about the signs of the end of the age––and we get two chapters’ worth of response.

Some of the first part of Jesus’ response goes like this:

Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt 24:9–14).

Persecution of the disciples

So they want to know about signs for the coming end of the age, and Jesus gets right to telling them, “you’re going to be persecuted and killed and hated.” Jesus never minces words when he’s talking about what life as a disciple may be like, does he? 

It reminds me of this famous classified ad about a South Pole expedition:

Hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.
— Ernest Shackleton, 4 Burlington St.

This isn’t usually how we present discipleship today, is it? “Sign-up sheets for our discipleship groups are in the back. I hope you’ll join one! Oh, it may involve imprisonment and beatings…” To be fair, a lot of people around the world and in history knew that part. But I never have.

I wonder how it has changed our response to discipleship that we can hear that invitation without hearing imprisonment and beating along with it.

Witness of the disciples

Despite the danger, Jesus tells his disciples the gospel will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.

We see that coming to fruition at the end of Matthew’s gospel. Jesus sends his disciples to make disciples of all nations. And he promises that he’ll be with them all the way to the end of the age. That’s an encouraging promise, given everything he told them they would endure.

Disciples in the sheep and the goats

In our passage about the sheep and the goats, Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Throughout the book of Matthew, who are Jesus’ brothers and sisters? They’re the disciples! They’re whoever does the will of God.

Most people who have read this passage throughout most of history don’t think it’s simply about extending hospitality to the poor and needy. That’s a great and biblical and essential thing to do. They would all agree. But it’s not what Jesus is doing here. What’s Jesus doing here? I think he’s talking about how the world receives his disciples—those that he calls his brothers and sisters.

This is what things will look like after Jesus sends his disciples into the world. Some people will meet his disciples—hungry, thirsty, needing clothes, sick, and in prison––and they’ll give them hospitality. When they do that, they’re not just welcoming Jesus’ disciples, they’re welcoming Christ himself. Christ goes with them.

And when they reject the disciples, they reject Christ himself. Christ goes with them.

The nations

For the nations— for all people—I think Jesus’ story about the sheep and the goats asks us how we receive those who bring the gospel. We’ve seen that since the first time Jesus sent his disciples out. Some people receive the messengers and the message. Some people reject them. Maybe hospitality can be a starting point for those who don’t know Jesus as Lord. Will they at least receive the messengers? Will they at least receive the ones he sends, and take care of them?

If you read this as someone who’s not sure that you’d call yourself a disciple of Christ — or you’re sure that you wouldn’t — this might be the place to stop and reflect. I’ve had lots of good opportunities to interact with people who aren’t Christians over the last several years. Several of them have wanted to talk about faith, not to spit in my face or debate, but to make a sincere effort at understanding. If that’s you, let me affirm you in that. We want you to claim this Christian message as your faith. But for now, receiving the messengers may be the best step you can take.

The messengers

Now let’s consider those messengers. The amazing reality Jesus presents here is that we are the body of Christ! Where Christ’s disciples go, he goes. What happens to Christ’s disciples happens to Christ. How the world receives them is how the world receives him.

So for the disciples, where are they in this story? They’re the hungry, thirsty, stranger, needing clothes, sick or in prison, aren’t they? Jesus has assumed this about his messengers over and over. “Want to be my disciple? Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” “You’ll go out like sheep among wolves.”

We see all that come true in the apostle Paul’s life. Look at what he writes to one church about what he and his companions have been through:

To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment (1 Cor 4:11–13).

When I’ve read the story of the sheep and the goats, I’ve always seen myself standing in one place in the story. I’m the one who’s supposed to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. And if I haven’t stressed it enough, that’s an appropriate place to be.

But I’ve never read this and thought that perhaps I might be the hungry or thirsty one. Why?

Well, you might say that I have the great fortune of having never really hungered or thirsted. It’s not a position I relate to. And that’s very true.

I’m also able to have a job that involves preaching the gospel, and yet I’m not treated like the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world (a hearty thanks to the Offerings Community of First UMC for that). I’m not in rags or brutally treated as a result of it.

For all of that, I give thanks. I don’t wish for the other.

But as it becomes more and more clear to me that the disciples in this story are the hungry, thirsty, sick and in prison, it becomes more and more clear to me that I’ve never heard the kind of call to discipleship that they did. For them, a call to discipleship meant nothing less than going and making disciples of all nations, and that led to nothing less than hunger and thirst, imprisonment and beatings.

Matthew’s gospel is this extended call to discipleship. And every step along the way, that involves danger and rejection on the one hand, and the promise of Christ’s presence on the other. So I ask myself, if the call to discipleship had sounded somewhat like this for me,


how much might that have changed my whole understanding of discipleship?

I admit here that I’m asking questions I haven’t been able to fully answer. All I know is that it’s terribly unnatural for me to hear Jesus’ story of the sheep and the goats and think that I might be in the position of the hungry or thirsty, and I think Jesus’ disciples hearing it then could have identified with that side quickly—not because of their social situations, their jobs, where they lived, or anything else, but simply because of the mission Jesus was giving them.

For as much as I don’t know, I’m pretty sure that a call to discipleship expects—demands really—that we’ll be bold in living according to faith despite the hardship that may come, that we’ll be bold in going out into our world and finding ways to share this faith with others. A call to discipleship expects that everywhere we go, we go as the very body of Christ. When we go places as Christ’s representatives, that means we’ll be received by some and persecuted by others. We’ll be welcomed by some and ignored by others. And where that happens, it’s not just us, but Christ himself, who receives that treatment. Our call to discipleship involves at least that much.

The great gift of God is that wherever we go, Christ is present with us. The great invitation of God is now to go boldly, in his presence and power. Christ has been made King—and the King says that however people treat his servants is how they treat the King himself.