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.