As you read this, lay and clergy delegates in equal numbers are arriving from fifteen annual conferences and eleven Episcopal areas covering eight states for the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in Dallas. While there are three days of agenda items, reports, and worship services, the only substantive purpose for Jurisdictional Conferences is the election, consecration, and assignment of Bishops. This year, three new bishops will be elected to replace two bishops who are retiring and one who passed away during his term of service. While any elder (fitting various age and experience criteria) could be elected, there are nine persons who have been endorsed by their conferences, and most likely the three newly elected will come from among these nine.
While there are numerous unique features of United Methodist church life (connectionalism, personal and social holiness, etc), for me, the Jurisdictional Conference particularly seems to highlight the central place of Episcopacy and Itineracy in our denominational identity.
The words Episcopal and Episcopacy come from the Greek word for Bishop, and derive from epi, which means over, and scopas, which means sight (like scope!) A similar word derived from Latin is supervisor: super means over, and visor means to see. A similar word in English is oversight. In short, Bishops oversee the spiritual and temporal affairs of the church. To do this, Bishops do all those things in their ministry of service, word, sacrament and order—they preach, teach, order the life of the conference, ordain and appoint pastors, preside at annual conference, lead, manage, etc, etc. (I won’t bore you with the pages of the Discipline describing the dozens of tasks and roles for bishops, since that whole section changed at General Conference anyway!) Bishops fulfill their ministries in their own personal ways for their unique context of ministry, but all of them are supposed to fill the historic role of inspiration, leadership, and organization of Asbury, Coke, and Wesley. Sometimes I tell people that I feel I should wear a wristband that has WWWD on it—What Would Wesley Do!
Some aspects of the office of Bishop receive more emphasis by some Bishops than by others, and that’s to be expected. For instance, I give more time than most bishops to the teaching office of the Bishop, directly and indirectly, through teaching, preaching, writing, books, blogs, and shaping conference sessions toward learning experiences. People talk about the importance of leadership among Bishops, but the role itself is restrained, limited, and bound in extraordinary ways that make leadership difficult.
The second theme that Jurisdictional Conference highlights, even though many people don’t think about it much, is Itineracy. After the new Bishops are elected, a Committee comprised of a clergyperson and layperson from each of the fifteen conferences decides the assignment of Bishops. This works like a Cabinet in an annual conference in making appointments. The fact that Bishops are assigned by a committee to a particular place reminds us how deeply Itineracy runs through our entire system, from top to bottom, and that no elder is shielded from either the possibilities and pains of assignment. In the United Methodist Church, probationary members, elders at every age and station, district superintendents, extension ministers, conference staff, and even Bishops are all part of a ministry in which we are “called to be sent.” In our ordination and consecration, we submit ourselves to a form of covenant that allows us to be placed by others according to what strengthens the larger mission of the connectional church.
Bishops are shaped by the Itineracy just like every elder. At the orientation for new Bishops in 2004, we were invited to play a game. In a large room we were asked to imagine that the floor was a huge map of the United States, with Texas at the bottom and California at the far left, etc. We were asked to stand on the map at the place where we were born, and then we took turns telling the whole group where we were standing. I was at the center bottom, in South Texas. Next we were asked to shift to where we attended seminary. Everyone moved a little, and I took a step or two forward to Dallas. Again, we shared with everyone where we were standing. Next, we moved to where we were serving at the time of our election as Bishops. I took two steps back, and everyone shifted a little once more. Up to this point, all the new Bishops were all moving in small circles in their own region of the country. Finally, we were asked to stand in the place where we had been newly assigned as Bishops. Suddenly people walked across the room, crisscrossing each other, moving far out from their previous circles. I stepped to the middle, Missouri, 1,200 miles from where I had served previously, and everyone else moved just as dramatically. Think about it…in this Jurisdiction, we’ve had Texans in Nebraska and Missouri, and a Missourian in Dallas, an Arkansan in New Mexico, and a New Mexico pastor in Arkansas! It’s the same for Florida, Mississippi, Iowa, Denver, Arizona, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and nearly every place on the map. Bishops move. They submit themselves to the Itineracy. They are called to be sent. They experience the stress, anticipation, fear, hope, possibility, and excitement that every elder does. They face the culture shock of change, the challenge of spouses losing jobs, major adjustments for children and grandchildren, and all the rest. Jurisdictional Conference reminds the whole church just how deeply the value and practice of Itineracy runs through our heritage, history, theology, and mission.
Wesley was asked about the practice of moving pastors for the mission of the church. He wrote, “What is sufficient call to a new place? A probability of doing more good by going thither than by staying longer where we are.” That’s about as concise a definition as I can find for the purpose of Itineracy at all levels of the church. Wesley also wrote, “This preacher has one talent and that another. No one whom I ever yet knew has all the talents which are needful for beginning, continuing, and perfecting the work of grace in a whole congregation.”
Three people will be elected this week to the Episcopacy. They will be consecrated and entrusted with an authority that is significant for the mission of our church. They will be authorized to lead, teach, order, ordain, and appoint. Even in their election and consecration, they are “called to be sent” and by Friday night they will be assigned to a place of ministry. Pray for the delegates who are voting, for the committee that is assigning, and for the Bishops and conferences who will be affected by this process. May our deliberations and decisions focus on the mission of the church to help us fulfill the ministry that has been entrusted to us by Christ.
Yours in Christ,