United Methodists love our bishops. One of the 1808 “Restrictive Rules” was that subsequent General Conference sessions could not “change nor alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with the episcopacy.”
We usually see our bishops in their role as presiding officers and we are aware of their power to send pastors to local churches, but we seldom witness a bishop baring his or her soul.
At the 2012 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, Bishop Paul Leeland, who was assigned to a second four-year term as leader of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, gave this writer an hour and a half of enlightening conversation about his journey as a Christian, his modus operandi as an episcopal leader, and his vision for the church in his area and across the connection.
He states that his credo is to “balance personal humility with professional capability,” and he notes that at every level of connectional ministry, including the bishops, “we must be faithful with the covenant.” Sprinkling his conversation with Scripture references, he cites II Peter 1:8: “If these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The most influential person upon the young Paul Leeland was his great-grandmother, who reared him and his siblings. She was what early Methodism called a “mother of Israel,” steeped in the scriptures and Wesleyan ideology. Bishop Leeland’s practice of rising early to meditate upon Scripture and his mastery of the biblical idiom is a gift from this woman. Just as young Timothy had his “Eunice and Lois,” the future bishop had a dear saint who “trained up a child in the way he should go” in spite of encumbering circumstances that would have moved many to despair. Bishop Leeland remembers his great-grandmother’s faithful courage as she quoted Exodus 14:13: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm. . . .”
‘Guard your spirit’
“The office defines the person,” Bishop Leeland said, but he warned that the authority of the office must put every bishop on guard “not to be seduced by title, power and position. . . . You must guard your spirit and, as they say in theater, ‘have balcony time’ when you are off the stage and seeing the church as others see it.”
Every day in his morning prayer, the bishop prays for those he will interact with that day—the persons, the anticipated agendas, and any local churches under his shepherding care that might be brought before him. Similar to most bishops, he opens cabinet meetings by receiving reports of pastoral care needs from each district superintendent. Then he calls or writes to each pastor whose family or church is reported to be in need of care.
The bishop often cites Ezekiel 34:8, when the prophet conveys God’s lament that “my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.” Just as Ezekiel’s insights came from his pastoral care—“The hand of the Lord being strong upon me, I came to the exiles . . . and I sat there among them. . . .” (Ezekiel 3:14-15)—Bishop Leeland puts a high priority on listening. He meets regularly with retired bishops, retired district superintendents and retired pastors, and has a “laity day apart” to hear the voice of the laity. He senses the danger of a bishop’s losing what he calls the “personal touch,” and he listens to the “engines of the local lay leadership who keep our churches going.”
Bishop Leeland tries to get laity and clergy “on the same page.” He does not embrace the role of “vision caster” so much as he seeks to be a “team builder,” working to get “everyone looking in the same direction.” He requires the executive committee of every conference board and agency to articulate how they are serving local churches. If a connectional body is not enhancing and motivating missional ministry in the local church, he feels we can do without it.
This bishop prefers Acts 11 to Acts 2. It was in Antioch, he notes, that the disciples were first called Christians. It was to Antioch that Barnabas brought Paul from his self-imposed exile. It was from Antioch that Paul, Barnabas, John Mark and Silas launched missionary journeys into Asia Minor and eventually answered the Macedonian call to take the gospel to Europe and the western world. It was in Antioch that Paul brought the first Greeks to live as an inclusive fellowship in Christ. This is our model for ministry today. We must be invitational.
My conversation with Bishop Leeland turned to appointment making, the role of a bishop felt most pointedly by the local churches. Quickly he said, “We must not reward mediocrity; we must reward effectiveness.”
The bishop has resurrected the Town and Country Commission in the Alabama-West Florida Conference, which championed small, rural churches for many years before being scuttled. We cannot abandon God’s historic call for the Wesleyan connectional ministry to provide quality pastoral leadership to churches without regard to their size.
“Small membership need not mean that a church is small in vision and mission,” Bishop Leeland said as he noted that one of the districts in the conference has very few ordained clergy. Our history owes a great debt to the former “local preachers”—part-time and full-time. The bishop meets annually with his megachurch pastors and challenges them to be coaching younger colleagues.
Since district superintendents are the “linchpin of the connection” between the local congregation and the bishop, Bishop Leeland sets for his cabinet a high bar for effective leadership. He meets with each D.S. one-on-one and presses with questions like, “What is your passion?” and “How are you employing and deploying your laity?” and “Are you coasting?” He urges them to show up at barbecues, bazaars and homecomings, even if their presence not “on the program.”
In January he commits time to sit with each D.S. and discuss every potential appointment change, wanting to know the specifics of each perceived need for a pastoral move. He charts the pattern of “dashboard indicators” for that pastor’s track record—attendance, professions of faith, support of the connectional church, missional ministries on both the local and global levels, recurring conflicts, etc. He charts the same information with churches that repeatedly ask for pastoral changes. When the cabinet meets, non-confidential discussions, recommendations and concerns are immediately posted on the conference website—so laity and clergy can “see into the heart” of their superintendents and bishop.
I asked how we can evaluate bishops after they have been assigned to an episcopal post. Bishop Leeland’s response was, “I ask another bishop to meet with my Committee on Episcopacy in my absence.” His colleague then hears about achievements, and any tensions or misunderstandings.
He believes that bishops must be held accountable for effective service, and that “without mutual trust, any relationship breaks down.” He acknowledges that United Methodist bishops have tremendous authority but does not feel that “term episcopacy” is the answer. He is concerned about the potential for “creeping congregationalism” if the United Methodist connection is not both efficient and effective. He laments the tendency of clergy—pastors, superintendents, bishops, agency staffs—to put personal interest, creature comforts and convenience above the covenant to “have done with lesser things.”
Somewhat surprisingly to me, Bishop Leeland is not that concerned that the “Call to Action” was debated, amended, substituted and finally declared unconstitutional in its final form at the recent General Conference.
First of all, he insists that some of the research done prior to General Conference motivated boards and agencies to trim budgets, cut staff and board membership and become more responsive to the grassroots.
Secondly, he notes that we now have four years to “build vital congregations.” We have models of effective ministry in every type of community; we know what a vital congregation is. Now we have the motivation to be sure that the paradigm and passion of the effective, vital congregation is made the expected norm for every church, regardless of its size or context. “We are a huge flotilla of ships, each with captain and crew,” Bishop Leeland said. “We have 48 months to build from the particular to the general rather than from the general to the particular.”
Lastly I asked if, as a global church, we must allow more structural diversity in order to be culturally relevant and effective. He noted how different our central conference churches are, from the Philippines to Africa to Europe. Our Board of Missions decades ago discovered that we must be sensitive to indigenous cultures. That is true regionally, even in the United States. We must do as our Lord and meet people where they are.
My conversation with the bishop left me with enormous encouragement for our future. God is not finished with United Methodism! “Rise up, ye saints of God! The church for you doth wait, her strength unequal to her task. Rise up and make her great.”
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.