Thursday, January 17, 2008

Imagine there's no Bishops.... it's easy if you try.

Had a great experience on this trip doing research for my dissertation. The highlight was a very much unexpected meeting with the bishop of the Florida Conference, Timothy Whitaker.

(To find out what I'm doing in Florida, just click for this post, and it will explain)

Before I left on this trip, while I made the arrangements for it back in November, I had forgotten to contact the conference office to arrange a meeting with Bishop Whitaker to get his take on the appointment at Indian River City United Methodist Church. I didn't really realize this until late last week while I was making a couple other last minute arrangements for interviews. Figuring that my chances of Bishop having a free hour in his schedule on such short notice was a pipe dream, I figured that while I was in Lakeland at the conference office doing two other interviews (the former the senior pastor at IRCUMC and the former DS in charge of the appointment), I'd stop by his office and try to arrange a phone interview sometime in the future.

So I walk into his office, looking for his secretary, when low and behold, who's standing in the outer entrance but no other than the Bishop himself. He greeted me, and I asked him to point me in the direction of his secretary so that I might arrange a phone interview with him sometime in the future.

"I'm free right now", he said. "I'll give you 20 minutes if you want them".

Heck yeah I want them... and I might note that it was over an hour later when I walked out of that office. And boy, what a great conversation!

Bishops in the United Methodist Church quite frankly have a pretty thankless job. Only the Roman Catholics imbue their bishops with more authority and administrative responsibility. This particularly is true when it comes to the deployment of available clergy. UM bishops are ultimately responsible for the appointment of every single UM-pastor in the country. It's a huge responsibility and one that, if mismanaged, can sink a local congregation or imperil the mission and ministry of the conference ministry as a whole. Just heard a horror story of a church in a southern conference that in the first year of a leadership transition lost more than two-thirds of their congregation, and ended up not paying $200,000 of its apportionment money (2/3rds of which is used to pay for conference expenses). That's the sort of thing at stake when a bishop has to pair up pastors with churches.

40 years ago this job was a whole lot easier. Methodist churches used largely the same liturgy, the same worship service, same leadership structure, were pretty unified together around denominational projects and missions, and culturally, the old M.E. and E.U.B. churches, and their UM lovechild, were largely pretty much culturally homogeneous. If your grandpappy was a Methodist, you became a Methodist, and more than likely you did it in the same church he attended. The skills pastors needed to do well were well-defined and easy to identify, so as pastors put in years of service, slowly they would be given churches of greater size. Bishops made sure that pastors towed the company line, and those that did were rewarded accordingly.

But then the sixties hit. Larry Norman started making Jesus music that got played at Calvary Chapel out in California, hence "contemporary worship", which eschewed traditional liturgy in favor of recreating the collective spirit one might feel at a rock concert, was born. Baby Boomers quit trusting anyone over 30, which meant that the days of young people just attending grandpappy's church were over. Society got more mobile and diverse. Willow Creek introduced business principles of marketing and customer service into the church world, and the Reagan Revolution ushered in the great conservative evangelical wave that washed over the country, and washed out more liberal mainline denominational churches. Alternative forms of spirituality and religious practice became more accessible thanks to the internet. It was just life for Americans, but for mainline denominational churches, it was a disaster, and nowhere was this more true than in the UMC.

Bishops in the UMC couldn't have been more unprepared for this endless change. Our system emphasizes continuity, centralization, and institutional control in a world where the ability to adjust on the fly and decentralization increasingly were becoming necessary for success. While non-denominational churches started sprouting up like weeds all over the country, fueling the growth in the number of MegaChurches, mainlines fought within themselves over the theological ramifications of huge worship centers that had neither pews nor organs, where preachers refused to wear robes or preach from the lexionary. Some UM-pastors could see where the church was headed, and went whole hog in that direction, often ending up with huge churches they served, turning their back on the notion that they had to be moved incrementally for years before getting a big church. Others, realizing that some changes had to be made, fought the "worship wars", dealing with angry traditionalists who "would have gone to a church with guitars if that was what they had wanted".

Jesus said that a house divided can't stand against itself, but by-golly the United Methodist Church tried. As "renegade" pastors turned their back increasingly on the old ways of doing things, others kept trying to do it the old way to less effect, while churches that had relied on the continuity in their communities vainly wondered when younger generations were going to come back and take over the reigns, Bishops quite frankly didn't know what to do. First they tried to ignore, or denigrate the renegades. Then the renegades were asked to hold workshops to teach everyone else how to do what they were doing. But by the time the bureaucracy of the UMC finally accepted some of the "new ways", they were already hopelessly outdated.

Hence a the loss of 4 million members since 1967, while the US population grew by 100 million people.

Some bishops didn't know whether to side with the old guard or embrace the edgy new one (or a "Pat Boonish" clone). Most just kept pushing forward like business as usual, hoping that that the 1950's, or the 1850's, would somehow come back into vogue. They couldn't train new pastors, or even really know what new skills should be developed or rewarded. They started throwing themselves into starting new churches (a wave that is just starting to get rolling), hoping that the growth of new congregations would overcome the demise of old flagship churches unwilling to change. A cultural shift had occurred, and for the first time the leadership of the Methodist church which had always been keen on being able to take the "temperature" of the culture, and adjust accordingly, had no idea where to put the thermometer.

I talked about this with Bishop Whitaker today, and I could hear in his voice the difficulty he faced in deploying clergy with an 1850 system in a 2008 world. How in the world can an itinerant system function if longer pastoral tenures make it impossible to bring pastors up the corporate ladder (since all the top rungs are now being occupied for long periods of time), or when pastoral spouses have careers, or divorced pastors have custody agreements? Large and mid-sized churches are screaming for pastors that can work with multimedia, or for specialized ministers that can do discipleship, evangelism, and the like, but seminaries still churn out pastors trained to be generalists who can do a bit of everything, and none of it excellently. It's a mess, and yet somehow the Bishop is supposed to make it all work.

So, the question is this.... is the era of the administrative bishop over? Should the office of bishop be recast so as to resemble our Anglican and Episcopalian cousins, where bishops largely function as spiritual guides for the denomination, while pastoral "appointments" are handled in a quasi-call system run by lay-leaders and senior pastors in local churches? Has the complexity of an itinerant system that has had to be modified almost to the point of not being recognizable just God's way of telling us that eight people in an office with a salary chart and an open journal aren't adequate to the task of deploying our available human resources, let alone raise up and train the next generation of Christian leaders in a rapidly changing world?

Bishop Whitaker had to much to say on these issues, and much of what he said shocked me. Since it all pertained to my dissertation, you'll just have to read it when its completed. But I can say this... he opened my eyes to the possibilities, and I sense he has glimpsed a bold new way into the future.

I'm just glad he's a bishop. It inspires in me both hope an confidence in the future.

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