United Methodist bishops from around the globe will gather Nov. 4-9 for a private retreat intended to establish a spiritual grounding for their work together during the next four years.
Among roughly 125 active and retired bishops planning to attend the event at Epworth-by-the-Sea on St. Simons Island, Ga., the 14 new episcopal leders, who were elected this summer and fall.
“It is important that we start our journey into a new quadrennium by taking time for prayer, reflection and discernment so that we ourselves practice the spiritual disciplines in order to become by God’s grace the leadership group the church expects us to be,” said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the Council of Bishops president. She also leads Germany’s episcopal area.
The agenda for the gathering includes Bible study, reviews of various requirements for bishops and guided conversations on such topics as being one body in Christ. The bishops also will join in frequent worship including daily Communion, said Bishop Peter D. Weaver, recently retired from the Boston Area and now the Council of Bishops executive secretary.
“Every time new bishops are elected, we become a new council,” Weaver said. “So our first meeting together is first about becoming spiritually centered and building new community as we seek to fulfill the mission Christ has given us and the leadership roles the church expects of us. So this time is not about ‘motions and voting’ but rather going deep in loving God and one another and asking, ‘What does the Lord require of us?’”
He likened the gathering to a congregational or covenant discipleship retreat.
It is open only to bishops, their spouses and some limited staff. United Methodist News Service, other United Methodist journalists and outside observers have been told not to attend.
However, the retreat comes at a time when bishops are facing increasing questions about their accountability — including from many bishops themselves.
The question of bishops’ responsibility for increasing vital congregations came up at the most recent Council of Bishops meeting in April.
Bishop Charles N. Crutchfield, now retired, made a motion that the council approved to have its executive committee develop “some identifiable procedure or process” for active and retired bishops to hold each other accountable.
Since then, the executive committee has held just one meeting, and its other business did not leave much time to address Crutchfield’s motion, Bishop Wenner said.
“The question of accountability is on our agenda, but it is too early to announce concrete results,” she said.
The topics of accountability and fruitfulness are on the council’s retreat agenda for the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 6.
“When we talk about ‘vital congregations,’ leadership and restructuring the life of the (Council of Bishops), we will have to talk about accountability,” Bishop Wenner said. “I do not wish to speak of my expectations, since it is on the council to talk and develop the way forward.”
She also said “the discussion format will be an interactive time of listening to one another and of discernment.”
“I am trusting the Holy Spirit is leading us.”
But questions about bishops’ accountability go beyond the drive for more fruitful congregations.
Since the summer, bishops have faced increasing scrutiny, and three bishops, in particular, have been at the center of three very different controversies.
In July, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference affirmed a recommendation by its episcopacy committee to compel Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe’s early retirement based on evaluations of the bishop. Bishop Bledsoe, who formerly led the North Texas Annual (regional) Conference is appealing the decision to the Judicial Council, the UMC’s top court, which has scheduled a hearing on the matter Nov. 9-11.
Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who leads the East Africa Conference, has faced concerns about the use of funds in the conference. Until auditing issues are resolved, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has suspended funds to the conference, and the General Council on Finance and Administration — the denomination’s finance agency — has recommended other church bodies cut off their financial support. The Judicial Council recently deferred until April ruling on the Western Pennsylvania Conference’s questions regarding the handling of funds in East Africa and the handling of a complaint against Bishop Wandabula.
The United Methodist Church’s continued disputes about sexuality issues also confront bishops. More than 70 United Methodist clergy and lay people in the United States have urged the Council of Bishops to censure retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, accusing him of encouraging disobedience to the denomination’s stance against the practice of homosexuality.
Bishop Wenner said she could not speculate on whether any of these matters might come up in discussion. “But these are not matters before the council,” she said.
Bishop Talbert said he is aware that some bishops hope to address the Western Jurisdiction’s “Biblical Obedience” movement to encourage United Methodists to act as if Paragraph 161F in the denomination’s law book “does not exist.” That paragraph outlines the church’s position that the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The Western Jurisdiction’s statement has already prompted a rare public disagreement among active bishops.
Bishop Talbert said the bishops would not know whether the Biblical Obedience movement would be discussed until the council is in session.
“Personally, I’m going to this meeting at peace,” he said. “I’m not worried about what may happen to me. My only desire is to be a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Looking back, looking forward
The retreat will mark the first time the bishops have gathered since seeing some of their initiatives, intended to foster vitality, not pass the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly, or overturned by the Judicial Council.
A proposed amendment to the denomination’s constitution to create a new full-time role for the Council of Bishops president fell short of the two-thirds vote it needed to pass General Conference.
The church’s Judicial Council also overturned Plan UMC, a proposal to restructure the denomination’s general agencies that had the backing of most bishops and the majority of General Conference delegates.
The Judicial Council in the past week also overturned legislation some bishops helped draft to eliminate guaranteed appointments for ordained elders and associate members in good standing.
These setbacks should not diminish the bishops’ commitment to a decade-long focus on fostering congregational vitality, bishops say.
“We need to look at how we can best move forward, given the decisions — how we can work toward greater cooperation and more fruitfulness so that we might achieve the aims behind Plan UMC and the changes in the appointment system even without structural changes,” Bishop Wenner said.
The next public meeting of the Council of Bishops will be in May in San Diego, Calif.