I’m frequently asked my opinion about what natural gifts or acquired skills are important for effective service as a Bishop in the United Methodist Church. I usually refrain from saying much about this so that no one will take my words as expressing a preference for one particular person or another, but since endorsements have not yet been formed in most of our conferences, I decided to share a few observations.
First, Bishops should have a strong record of effective congregational leadership. Bishops have primary responsibility for leading conferences to recruit pastors, train pastors, credential pastors, deploy pastors, start congregations, mobilize mission, transform congregations, and lead congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ, and these require a profound understanding and extensive experience of congregational dynamics. Mediocre, mistaken, simplistic, or unclear notions about how congregations work, what causes churches to grow, or how to mobilize people toward an objective will not suffice. Skills honed through years of successfully leading fruitful, growing congregations, such as preaching, teaching, partnering with laity, supervising staff, working with groups, pastoral care, and administration are helpful in the role of Bishop. And congregations are the primary means by which the church fulfills its mission, and so Bishops should love the local church and understand how God uses faith communities to impact the world.
Second, Bishops must be unceasingly focused on the mission of the church. The office requires people who passionately and unrelentingly push, provoke, remind, stimulate, and inspire pastors and laity to excellence, fruitfulness, and effectiveness in ministry. They must be capable of mobilizing people in a large, complex organization toward purposeful work and common values, and must cultivate clarity of purpose, confidence in our mission, and hope for the future. Bishops serve the mission of Christ and not merely the pastors of the conference, the desires of the congregations, or the preferences of the members, and so they repeatedly refocus the attention of the organization toward the mission field, toward the people God has placed in our congregations here to reach through our witness and service. Bishops cannot become inordinately distracted by lesser good things, tertiary priorities, unnecessary meetings, useless organizational churning, fruitless conflict, or archaic structures meant only to preserve insider prerogatives. Their life is the mission of Christ.
Third, serving effectively requires an all-embracing vision of ministry and an ability to be Bishop to all United Methodists, not just some. Bishops should demonstrate a history of encouraging diverse theological, cultural, and generational faith expressions. They should easily support worship styles different from their own personal faith experience and willingly open the door to the faith expressions of the young. The most important distinction in our church today is not between liberal or conservative, contemporary or traditional, young or old, black or white, but between the missionally-driven and those who are complacent, blaming, ignoring, or denying our mission, and so we need Bishops who are not merely one-issue leaders, bureaucrats, or CEO’s but who embrace an expansive view of ministry, engaging the world with missional energy. We need outward-focused Bishops for whom serving Christ is an adventure rather than a job, a journey to which they are willing to say Yes, and Yes again. I pray for Bishops who are thrilled at the prospect, anxious to get started, ready in a moment’s notice, alive with Wesley’s “the world is my parish” spirit, unlimited in vision, undimmed by failure, exuberant in spirit.
Fourth, Bishops must have a high pain threshold. Bishops see much grief, loss, anger, hurt, conflict, and despair, and they necessarily work with victims of misconduct, churches in distress, people in poverty, victims of natural disasters, broken homes, congregations in decline, and pastors facing loss and transition. Many feelings are directed toward the Bishop as the representative of the church, and Bishops cannot afford to take criticism personally, hold grudges, or obsessively overwork negative experiences.
Fifth, serving as Bishop requires patience and resilience. The work requires the ability to live comfortably with ambiguity, tension, paradox, unfinished projects, imperfect planning, and problems that cannot be resolved, and Bishops must do so without trying to fix everything too quickly or imposing their own will too strongly. They must make friends with creative chaos and lead with resilience, agility, patience, restraint, and flexibility while remaining persistent in purpose. They must be life-long learners because nothing that they have experienced before totally prepares them for this work.
Sixth, Bishops should be utterly offended by the decline of the church, willing to take responsibility for it, open to innovation, and yet be unafraid of failure. To reverse decline requires high-risk initiatives, transformation of systems, and support of emerging patterns. Bishops must be capable of handling the stress of disappointing people in order to lead through change. Bishops preside over immensely large, complex organizations that involve hundreds of churches, thousands of people, and millions of dollars and this requires extraordinary organizational competence and experience.
Seventh, serving well requires that Bishops find satisfaction in the accomplishments of others. They exercise a ministry of encouragement. They are not on the front lines—reaching new people, leading mission teams, teaching bible studies, preaching funerals, inviting people into the body of Christ. When such ministries come to fruition, Bishops naturally and appropriately direct the credit to pastors and congregational leaders. Bishops are background people for congregational ministry; they are part of the unseen support team that helps people help people, and so they should never pine for attention, seek to take credit, or feel the need to take center stage.
Eighth, serving well requires unending good humor, and those Bishops do best who demonstrate humility, graciousness, and winsomeness while also being able to capture the imagination, hold the respect, engage the attention, and mobilize the response of large gatherings of people. Bishops dare not take themselves too seriously.
Ninth, since United Methodism has a global mission, Bishops should have a well-worn passport, or at least significant inter-cultural experience. Whether through VIM projects, international service, significant language learning, or other inter-cultural work, Bishops should reveal an active curiosity and love for people from diverse backgrounds.
Tenth, this work requires unusual physical stamina. I average 140 nights in hotels, 30,000 miles of driving, 80 flights, 60 days of meetings, and 180 prepared presentations per year, while also performing all the ordinary office work, answering thousands of letters and emails, supervising hundreds of pastors, monitoring legal issues, reading 50 books, and writing 40 blogs and a book each year. The physical challenges of the office are remarkable beyond what most people realize. While I can’t tell you exactly what a Bishop does, I can tell you that it takes all day every day!
Eleventh, Bishops should not need to be Bishops for their happiness, sense of worth, identity, or to meet their own personal needs. God calls people to ministry; the church calls people to the Episcopacy. The office is best served by those who can take it or leave it, who are willing to serve but who are not desperate to achieve; who are willing to pour out their life in this form of service, but who do not need to promote themselves to make it happen.
Twelfth, and most importantly, anyone considered for the Episcopacy must have an absolute and undying love for Christ, and for the body of Christ made visible in the United Methodist Church. I pray for Bishops with a well-developed interior life, deep-spirited, and attentive to the wild, raw beauty of the spiritual life, fully in love with God and desiring God with eagerness, humility, and passion. Those who do this work most effectively take an unfathomable delight and infinite joy in serving the United Methodist Church. They love Mr. Wesley’s connection, and the United Methodist way of shaping lives for Jesus Christ!
Yours in Christ,