Fewer Bishops, Stronger Church?

Here’s a horrifying thought: what if each local congregation’s executive board consisted not only of the pastor and current board members, but also retired former pastors and former board members? Rather than 12-20 people who have voice and vote, you’d have 12-20 people with voice and vote and another 30-50 who have voice.  Does that sound like a great way to govern a local church?

Because that’s exactly how we are governing the denomination.

Our executive branch, the Council of Bishops, has proven unable to lead the denomination effectively for quite some time.  The divisions we lament are present in the Council themselves.  The disobedience that has riven our community is reflected in, rather than critiqued by, that same body.  While we could suggest other fruitful avenues for change in the Council, at least part of the issue is far more basic than theological, philosophical, or political differences: there’s just too many people at the table.  Like hydra, the Council has an exponentially growing number of heads.  It’s no wonder, when asked for direction by the 2016 General Conference, that they suggested a commission composed of laity, clergy, and bishops* rather than take it up themselves; they didn’t even want to attempt to come to a recommendation on their own.

According to Bishop Scott Jones in his recent work The Once and Future Wesleyan Movement, the Council as currently constituted is set up to fail:

First, the Council is too large. All retired bishops are members of the Council. Thus, during the last quadrennium, there were 152 members, all of whom have the right to speak at Council meetings. Only the sixty-six active bishops are allowed to vote, but everything we know about the function of leadership teams says voice is more important than voting. Further, a group of 152 has a hard time functioning as a team. As of July 2016 we have now added fifteen new bishops to the group.

I’ve been a number of settings in different organizations, in which groups of 6-10, or up to 50 were trying to make a decision.  Even in a small committee of 7, having good conversion and building consensus is a challenge.  When I think of that, Bishop Jones’ advice seems like the textbook definition of common sense.  We can’t reasonably expect 152 voices to efficiently reach conclusions on most things, and in particular the most divisive matters (for which they are charged to provide spiritual, pastoral, and theological oversight).  Much like expecting the President of the Council of Bishops to also serve full time overseeing an Episcopal Area (with perhaps 1000+ churches), this is a system chaotic in its very design.

Jones continues:

The best hope for the Council to become the leadership team that the church needs is to restrict its membership to only active bishops. When a bishop retires, he or she should retain the title and a have a place of honor in the church. There are many ways in which retired bishops are functioning for the good of the church. Some are bishops in residence at colleges and seminaries. Some function as consultants for annual conferences. Some preside over church trials. But they should not attend the Council meetings where the active bishops are seeking to discern how to provide for the temporal and spiritual interests of the church. (75)

The point, then, is not to put bishops out to pasture.  As Jones notes, retired bishops serve a whole host of vital roles in the church well after their official retirement. But as vital as their collective wisdom and experience certainly is, a team of 152 can’t possibly function adequately.  If 10 trustees can’t agree on the new carpet, asking 152 voices to come to a conclusion about a complex ecclesial problem is laughable.  Sometimes less is more, and in the case of the Council of Bishops, less is necessary.

None of this is to suggest that this is a silver bullet for the UMC.  There are a host of issues in polity, theology, worship, and catechesis that we need to address – but ensuring that our executive can function is a great place to begin, and facilitates most of the other needed changes.

“The fish stinks from the head,” says an oft-quoted dictum.  As the leadership goes, so goes the whole body. If our leadership team is bloated, divided, and unable to function, we cannot expect those over whom they are charged to function must better.

There are many reforms that need to take place if the UMC is fulfill her mission effectively, but few others would be both as simple and impactful as this change.

What do you think of Bishop Jones’ proposal? What else would it take for the Council of Bishops to become an effective leadership team once more? Leave a comment below!

*Yes, I know that bishops are clergy, and that bishops are not technically a separate order than elders in our polity, but when the makeup of the Commission on the Way Forward was announced, this is how the breakdown of members was described in the media.


  1. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Makes one wonder if there were elements at the 68 merger who wanted to lead us here.
    As you said, it doesn’t fix everything but nothing is likely to be fixed without it. For the UMC today, it would be like replacing an inefficient helm on a sinking ship. Once the leaks are plugged it will be an essential thing to have.

  2. I would like to see the terms of bishops limited. The term could be 1 six year term, as District Superintendents serve or 2 four year terms. Either way they return to serving a Church in there the annual conference from which they were elected or they may retire with pension from their previous annual conference. A contribution to the pension fund from the Episcopal area would be made for the time they spent serving as Bishop. There is no reason they should retain the title anymore then a former district superintendent does.

  3. I think it would make since to have the retired Bishops meet with the Active Bishops for worship and fellowship but when it comes to council business they should not attend. The only time for them to meet with the council would be by invitation to advise when one of them has expertise in an area they are working on.

  4. Let them serve 8 years and go back to the pastorate.if you get a good one let them go back in the pool and stand for reelection

    IF we believe our polity much of what we are doing from separate pension plans to life the organization of the college of bishops should be unconstitutional.

  5. Over twenty years ago, the recommendation in organization was to reduce and streamline decision-making bodies. Back then I was living among congregationalists and they were realizing that the “seven disfunctional committee” system should be let go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *