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).

This is not a fire

keep_calm_and_carry_onAll the rules of social convention tell you not to stand up and yell in a movie theater. Unless there’s a fire. Then, by all means, stand up and yell. This is a crisis situation. No time for whispering.

During a crisis, we may forgo things that are normally important for the sake of ultimately important things. Being polite and civil is normally important. But when, for example, you’re at the site of a car crash, civility loses its importance for a moment. It’s appropriate to yell, “Get out of the way!” Even at the expense of seeming rude or hurting feelings.

The problem comes when people mistake urgent for crisis. These are not the same. Life brings many urgent decisions—cases when we need to make a choice. These times are often unplanned and unwelcome. Few of these are crises—cases of imminent danger.

When we talk about “putting out fires,” we’re talking about crises. A fire must be put out or we risk serious damage. Unless you’re Jack Bauer, you should not be putting out multiple fires per day, or even week or month. If you are, there’s either a problem with your system or, more likely, you’re confused about what a “fire” is.

If “putting out fires” isn’t the term that’s used, it may come in a different form: drama. Drama takes a presenting need and turns it into a crisis.

When we mistake urgent for crisis, it creates a big problem. In crisis, we live by a different set of values and create a different culture. We re-write or re-order what we consider important for those times.

Here’s how that can look in the church…

Sunday Morning and the Perfect Game

In the church, Sunday morning presents many urgent situations. We have lots of moving parts. We would like each of those parts to move in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. How that looks on a perfect morning: hospitality team greets every person who walks in, microphones are on and off at all the right times, the correct slides are always on screen, everyone hits every cue. I’ve referred to this as “the perfect game.”

I often say to our leaders after worship, “The perfect game still eludes us.” We haven’t pulled it off yet. Every week, something goes wrong––someone misses a cue, a volunteer calls in sick, something isn’t where we expect it. But not yet have we had a true crisis. And the worst thing we could do to undermine our values is to treat the pursuit of a perfect game as crisis.

Here’s how urgency can become crisis on Sunday morning…

No gifts

We can’t find the gifts we normally give to guests. This is a problem. An urgent problem. Guests will be standing before us at any moment, waiting for that promised gift, and we don’t have it. You have to make a decision. (A note: this is a situation I think my church has happily avoided. So this is all hypothetical.)

One decision––keep calm. Have some people look around. With a smile, ask anyone who may know where those gifts may be. If all this fails, greet the guests warmly and apologize that the gifts we promised seem to be misplaced.

Another decision––treat it as a fire. Scramble. Panic. Run into rooms breathless, asking where the gifts are, thus sending the whole room into a frenzy.

When crisis comes, we forgo normally important things. We stop smiling, noticing people as people, and speaking to them with warmth. We kick into fight or flight mode, instead. In that example above, the gift is intended to facilitate a more important value––that we value people and want to welcome them well. When we treat the gift as a crisis, we create an environment where the more important thing (valuing people) takes less importance.

When I’m in an environment where “the perfect game” is top priority, I can tell. The people there are tense, even when they try not to show it. They’re unable to give me too much attention because they’re constantly watching for anything that may go wrong. Every problem is a threatening fire.

No gifts for guests is a simple example. Others that may sound more pressing: a key children’s ministry leader calls in sick, the sound board isn’t operating correctly, the preacher just called in sick. All of these are disappointing. All will require some major adjustment. None is a crisis. The first thing to do in each situation: everyone smile and take a breath. We’ll still find a way to worship together this morning.

Why this is important

As a pastor, I’ve learned that this distinction is not a small thing, a minor preference about how we approach worship together. It’s a big thing. It sets the tone for the whole community––how we live and worship together.

I’ve learned this because I used to be more preoccupied with every potential problem. To the point that I couldn’t worship well if something was wrong or threatened to go wrong. That spirit prevented me from giving enough attention to the people in front of me. It occasionally spilled over to stress out those around me. It showed our community that getting things right was the most important thing. When we live on edge like that, we might get the things right, but we get the spirit wrong. We create a culture of fear rather than a culture of joy and celebration. And the culture of joy and celebration needs to remain more important––all the way until there’s a fire threatening real danger.

We can find a way to adjust without that crucial volunteer, without the sound board, without the preacher. It’s not ideal. We’ll hope for better next week. We’ll learn to plan better if we could have. But we will worship with a glad spirit right now, regardless.

This doesn’t intend to shrug off problems. We would like things to go as planned. We should prepare well, with thought and care. That sets us up for success. (Some things that become “urgent” aren’t because of unexpected surprises but because of poor planning. That’s a bad excuse. We should own that failure in planning when it happens and then correct it.) If the same problem keeps happening, it’s irresponsible if we don’t ask why and work on a solution.

But once the planning is over and the time has come, problems are sure to come with it. A good question to ask: is this a problem or a fire? If it’s a problem, stay calm, work toward a solution, stick with the big values you know are most important. If it’s a fire, then you have permission to get stressed out. Run, scramble and yell all you need to. If things go wrong, the consequences could be dire.

We rarely mistake a fire for a smaller problem. Fires stand out. But we often mistake problems for fires.