A New World, and Its Detractors

One of the most exciting things I’ve witnessed, in the Council of Bishops, is the bishops’ “Call to Action.” The bishops have heard the plea of the UMC for leadership to do throughout our connection that which has already been done in all of our vital congregations – simplify and focus our structure and realign our resources, so that more emphasis is placed upon mission and upon fruit.

Our Council President, Bishop Greg Palmer (a student of mine at Duke and someone who spoke at our SBC21 meeting last year) states what we hope to achieve through these measures: “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” 

All of the proposals – a long overdue restructuring of general boards and agencies, shared accountability for ministry by sharing of results from the Conferences (using the North Alabama Dashboard as the model!), a set-aside bishop to coordinate the work of the bishops, and cost cutting measures – have one goal: vital congregations.

I wondered if the Bishops’ proposals went far enough, if were being appropriately rigorous in our focus on mission, but when I read fellow South Carolinian, Tim McClendon’s attack on the bishops’ plans, I realized that we were on the right track.[1] Tim dismisses our dreams as a mere “business model” that “is a smoke screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops,” praising our church as organized like the Federal Government![2] Our church is now imperiled, says Tim, by an insidious power grab by the bishops. We’re afflicted with a power-hungry episcopacy who wants a set-aside bishop, a “quasi-pope,” says Tim. 

Tim has no proposals for church revitalization other than to require bishops to work more in their annual conferences (failing to note that the Discipline makes us superintendents of the whole church). He shouts that bishops ought “to be set-aside in their annual conferences!” saying, “We all know how little time bishops actually spend in their annual Conferences.”

I’m sorry that Tim thinks his conference has an absentee bishop, but I don’t think anybody would say that in North Alabama. Tim’s prescription for better leadership by the bishops is for us to spend more time staying in the homes of our people and “making personal connections” — which Tim thinks is the chief requirement for effective leadership.

Note that Tim has little concern for the whole point of the Call to Action: vital congregations. His unfocused, rather predictable plea for the status quo, his unconcern that most of our congregations are in decline, and his disinterest in accountability for fruitfulness is the same sort of resistance we encountered a few years ago in North Alabama. Thank goodness that our conference had people who, unlike Tim, resonated with the bishops’ call to “Make Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World,” or we wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I’m so thankful that when I said that we could do better, that we were going to remove impediments to growth and fidelity, no one trembled in fear at a power-grabbing bishop!

In my eight years as bishop, I’ve heard no one anywhere complain, “Bishops are too powerful.” The complaints, from those who care about our church’s future is, “Bishops have got to step up and lead,” and “Someone must take responsibility for giving our church a different future than the one to which we are doomed through our present way of doing business.”

I am confident that there enough frustrated United Methodists — who have languished at unproductive board meetings, who have watched helplessly as one congregation after another quietly slips into death, have prayed that someone would cast a vision and move forward – that the Call to Action and its proposals by the bishops will be gratefully received by General Conference. If we listen to those who ignore our plight and protect their status quo, we deserve the bleak future we’ll get.

Of course, I might think like Tim if I had not been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to be in ministry in North Alabama. I urge Tim to see first hand what a conference looks like that takes more seriously Jesus’ mandate to make disciples than it attempts to plod along doing ministry as usual. There’s a reason why our conference was at the top in the percentage of Vital Congregations – the Holy Spirit has helped us to let go of some old ways of doing things, to hold ourselves rigorously, publicly accountable for the actual results of our ministry, and to focus our financial resources on vital congregations rather than on defense of unproductive structures, pastors, and congregations.

We’ve got a long way to go, but at least we are on the way. All that the Council of Bishops asks of the church is permission to go forward, to bless the general church with some of the practices and values that we have pioneered in North Alabama, and to give us what we need to be faithful to your call for us to lead the church.  

Will Willimon  

 [1] “Restructuring proposal is bad medicine for UMC,” Tim McClendon, United Methodist Reporter, Nov 8, 2011.
 [2] “Our polity is based on the separation of powers,” an a-theological view of our polity indeed

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