Within the world of United Methodism, many people know about the work and ministry of bishops. Bishops are often treated with great deference, sometimes regaled against, frequently respected, and many times fairly unknown to the members and pastors of a conference. As in chess, many bishops are suspected of moving diagonally to get things done rather than directly or confrontationally. But take a single step outside of the United Methodist family and no one out there even knows United Methodist bishops exist. When Iím picking up dry cleaning, getting my hair cut, or cashing a check at the bank, and the attendant, salesperson, barber, or cashier asks me what I do, their response to my being a bishop is always two-fold: First, they say, ìI didnít know the Methodist church had bishops.î And then they invariably ask, ìSo, whatís a bishop do?î
Itís hard to justify oneís existence and work in a brief interchange like this, especially with those outside the church. ìWell, bishops make appointmentsÖ..chair really big annual meetingsÖ.preach in lots of churchesÖordain peopleÖdeal with clergy misconduct issuesÖ.as the name from the Greek, ìepi scopes,î bishops look over, give oversight, supervise.î See what I mean? Some of what a bishop has to deal with Iíd rather not get into in a first conversation!
Figuring that the readers of this blog are mostly Christian, majority United Methodist, and fairly good-humored, I thought Iíd let you know a little more about what a bishop really does. I happen to be one of those journal-keeping-eccentric-kind-of-Wesleyans who keeps track of a lot of things through daily entries and reflections. So hereís a glimpse at what a bishop does:
During 2007, I preached or offered prepared presentations on 153 occasions. I drove 29,440 miles for work purposes, almost entirely within Missouri. I stayed in hotels 123 nights (about 20 were for family times, vacation, study leave, and the others were work-related, the great majority in Missouri). I stepped onto 36 airplanes (about 11 round trips). I read 51 books and published one book and wrote about 28 columns, blog entries, and articles. For exercise I ran/walked 1514 miles. I saw (a record for me!) a total of 350 different species of North American birds, adding 72 to my life list and bringing it to 454. I launched two websites: www.FivePractices.org and www.pbase.com/mobish. I could also talk about the number of people I ordained and commissioned, the number of new appointments to churches I made, the number of meetings with laity, clergy, youth, seniors, womenís groups, menís groups, etc, etc. In a few days, Iíll know about the worship attendance, apportionment giving, benevolence giving for the nearly 900 churches of the Missouri Conference for 2007. Things Iíd be afraid to count, or to admit? The number of meetings I attended, the number of hours spent on church conflicts or clergy conduct issues, the number of emails received or cell phone calls made, the number of fast-food lunches and dinners on the road.
All this represents a great deal of activity. Pull out a Book of Discipline and youíll find that there are entire sections on all that a bishop should attend to. The church expects a great deal of activity from its bishops, and keeps them hopping here and there and involved in a great number of committees and conversations.
The problem with listing activities is that there is no direct relationship between activity and achievement, between doing a lot of stuff and actually accomplishing something. Too heavy a focus on activity deflects careful evaluation of achievement toward a purpose. Achievement is seen in fruit: in lives changed, souls touched, systems shaped, congregations revitalized, suffering relieved, hope enlivened. If we lose focus on the results we are seeking to accomplish, we fall back on measuring inputs, efforts, activities. This gives a false reading on progress and impact. We can churn and churn and churn with activity and feel good about our efforts but with little result or effect.
So, what does a bishop do? In very simple and non-disciplinary terms, I mobilize people to fulfill the mission of Christ. I teach and remind and motivate. I prayerfully and persistently encourage others to greater ministry. I make decisions about direction, priority, deployment, and resources as prayerfully as I can and with as much attention as I can give to alignment with the mission of the church. I point constantly to the margins of the church, to the places where the church meets the community, strangers, the unchurched, the young, and people in need. I try to keep the church from turning in on itself. I keep the purpose and end of our work in as sharp a focus for everyone as I can to see that our goals, priorities, directions and initiatives derive from the ministry of Jesus Christ. I help churches and pastors face the challenges and obstacles that keep us from offering our utmost and highest for the purposes of Christ. And to do this, I spend a lot of time praying, preaching, driving from church to church, writing, answering emails, responding to letters, planning, and sitting through tons of meetings and conversations and worship services.
So, what do you think is the most important work for a bishop to do? Beyond the activity and expectations and workload that characterize most bishopsí lives, what do you think is the most important task for bishops to accomplish?
Yours in Christ,
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