Don’t sweat the recall, Chesa. There might be a place for you in the United Methodist Council of Bishops.

A recent videocast interview of the newly installed president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops brought to mind the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin who was swept out of office by 55% of those voting in the special recall election. Perhaps you know the story.

Chesa Boudin was/is a rising star of progressive initiatives for criminal justice reform in a famously progressive city. District Attorney Boudin painted the recall effort as a juggernaut of politically right-wing activists who had, inexplicably, taken control of the minds and hearts of San Franciscans. The voters of San Francisco didn’t buy it. They have been and continue to be politically progressive — and proudly so. As it turns out, though, even amidst DA Boudin’s efforts at progressive criminal justice reform, the people of San Francisco expected the District Attorney to enforce the law. Public perception of dramatically rising crime rates, particularly violence against Asian Americans, paired with public perception that the DA was letting prosecution against crime “slide”, led to an unexpected repudiation of the progressive Mr. Boudin by the notably progressive populace of San Francisco.

It is simply not true that San Franciscans suddenly became conservative Republicans on June 7th. After all, they had voted by over 90% for President Biden in 2020. San Franciscans simply and understandably wanted the District Attorney to support the laws in place, even if he advocated for changing them. As it turns out, the DA could be as progressive as the day is long but if could not or would not maintain the democratically determined laws he had sworn to support, it marked a failure at the most basic level to fulfill the obligations of his office.

Which points out why, perhaps, the recent videocast by Bishop Tom Bickerton of New York highlights a foundational problem many United Methodists are having with our bishops: failure at the most basic level to fulfill the obligations of their office.

Hearing from the President of the Council of Bishops, Thomas Bickerton, is about as close as United Methodists get to something like hearing from the President or the Governor or the CEO or the Superintendent of Schools in our community. This is the top executive leader in the organization. So, appropriately, the words of the top-level organizational leader are given special attention. The interview with Bishop Bickerton gives some insight into the thinking and direction he and other bishops are taking at this conflicted and confusing time in the life of the United Methodist Church.

Here are my observations of several salient points in Bishop Bickerton’s interview. Since Bishop-speak is akin to a distinct dialect, I have also included my succinct summary translation. You can listen to entire interview for yourself here:

The Big Question: How Does the UMC Move Forward Now?

The overarching interview question asked of Bishop Bickerton is particularly important for those who anticipate remaining part of the United Methodist Church rather than exploring alternatives for the future of their congregation and/or themselves:

Rev. Molly Vetter (Interviewer): “Do you have a sense of the route we take to get to a hope-filled future?”
Bishop Bickerton: “I can give a stab at that from my perspective.”

Here are some of the main points in Bishop Bickerton’s “stab” at the future of the UMC

  1. Speaking of the United Methodist General Conference, he concludes, “We are dependent upon a meeting that has been dysfunctional for fifty years.”
    Summary: We can’t count upon General Conference any longer.
  1. Through the delay of the General Conference meeting until 2024, God has opened a door. United Methodism doesn’t like spontaneity or innovation. So the question is whether we have the courage to walk through the door pursuing our values of love, justice, and inclusion.
    Summary: We need courageous leaders who will “walk through the door” into the future.
  1. “We (the bishops) have been given permission, maybe it’s self-appointed permission, to move ahead.” We must continue the work of full inclusion.
    Summary: We – the bishops – are the courageous, spontaneous, innovative leaders who will take press on to a future of love, justice, and inclusion, despite the action or inaction of General Conference.
  1. The delay of General Conference pushed all the decisions for the future down to the Annual Conference level. We (the bishops) have been working night and day to bring alignment of all of the “systems” in the Annual Conferences so that we have a unified narrative for the future.
    Summary: We will stifle dissenting voices and activities in pursuit of organizational conformity.
  1. Missing in action: for an organization committed to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, it seems a glaring omission that Jesus was not mentioned even once by Bishop Bickerton.
    Summary: Jesus can be set aside as we pursue our progressive agenda.

In some ways, I can sympathize with the bishop.

We are all familiar with the frustrations of democratic decision-making in institutions and organizations, whether it is a Homeowners’ Association Board of Directors, the United States Congress, or the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. Group decision-making is messy! We can understand the impulse of some leaders to justify their move toward authoritarianism by portraying current “threats” as too urgent and our current democratic way of decision-making as too cumbersome to “meet the moment.” Hence, the temptation to an “episcopal coup” among some of our Bishops.

This is such a commonplace dynamic among political leaders that it barely merits mention. It is presumed that political leaders, once given legitimate authority by being elected to this or that position will often come to believe that a) they know more and better than the people who elected them, b) they are entitled to the position they hold with little or no accountability, and c) they now must guard the High Tower against the peasants with pitchforks who originally elected them.

Of course, for political leaders there is always the accountability of the next election or, in the case of DA Boudin, a recall election.  Voters have a way of replacing an elected leader who has failed to fulfill the stewardship of the office on behalf of the people it is intended to benefit.

United Methodists, it is sad to say, don’t have that option for holding our bishops accountable. Our bishops are elected for life. They are accountable to no one but themselves.

Bishops are not subject to recall elections because we shouldn’t need recall elections in the church.

United Methodists have, by our democratic decision-making processes of the General Conference, already determined the primary obligations of our Bishops:

“As followers of Jesus Christ, bishops are authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church. The role and calling forth of the bishop is to exercise oversight and support of the Church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2016, paragraph 403

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

There is no authorization, however, for a bishop to set aside the decisions of the General Conference in pursuit of her or his own reform agenda.

Work for change? Of course. Ignore the rules? Nope. Giving in to the authoritarian impulse is a failure at the most basic level to fulfill the obligations of their office.

Leadership for the Jesus Mission is by nature quite different from the way leadership so often operates in the world of which we are part.

So, Jesus called them (the disciples) together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:42-45 / parallel in Matthew 20:25-28

The succinct summary to progressive leaders tempted toward authoritarianism might come from C.S. Lewis:

“I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.”

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

For a recent example of taking unwarranted authority to set aside the rules of our denomination, see the commentary by UM seminary professor Dr. Jack Jackson on Florida Annual Conference action regarding ordination:

The board (of Ordained Ministry), in partnership with the bishop’s office, willfully broke trust with its Disciplinary obligation to identify candidates who meet The United Methodist Church’s requirements for ordination. The board took it upon itself to rewrite ordination requirements as its individuals saw fit, not as the denomination, or even the Florida Conference as a whole, had together discerned. As numerous persons from the bishop’s office reminded us during annual conference, the Book of Discipline has not changed. Yet board members acted as if they could change the Discipline by fiat. The clergy session rightly rejected this egregious overreach.

Full commentary here: Florida UMC Board of Ordained Ministry Overreach

For a further reflection, based on personal experience with decades of denominational decision-making, as to whether centrist and progressive leaders in the UMC can be trusted, see the current editorial by Rev. Rob Renfroe in the July/August 2022 issue of Good News magazine.

“There are many centrists and progressives of character who desire a peaceful solution to our division that does not create winners and losers. For them we are grateful, especially for those bishops who are working in good faith with traditional churches. But for those who are telling you that the UM tent will always be big enough for traditionalists – I cannot think of a single reason you should stake the future of your church upon their promises.“

Rev. Rob Renfroe in the July/August 2022 issue of Good News magazine, pg. 3

If you’d like to consider a better future for your local church and yourself, you can still register (just barely!) for the New Day Regional Gathering on THIS SATURDAY, June 25 in Geneseo, Illinois. I hope to see you there!

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REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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