In my recent letter to Bishop Willimon in response to his United Methodist Reporter commentary I was pretty hard on our bishops in my attempt to address what I heard the Bishop say about the lack of trust of the General Conference in Tampa. Somehow, he implied, the Council of Bishops were the victims in all this, and that they fall outside the breach of trust that permeates our church. In a gracious and challenging response to that post, Bishop Willimon offered his condolences that my experience with bishops had been so negative. In thinking about that comment, I want to make sure that I set the record straight.
In point of fact, the emotions I shared were the reflection of many conversations with others over the years who have found themselves unable to maintain trust in their bishop. I grant that many of these conversations — from both clergy and laity alike — occur on the back end of a difficult experience and that I am only receiving a single side of the conversation without the big picture. That is, after all, the consequence of a system that very often uses confidentiality as the justification for maintaining power through the flow of information. The people sharing with me have been wounded, and the bishop (and the cabinet which represents his our her leadership to us) is a convenient scapegoat for what I know are complex and not easily resolved issues. Maintaining trust in a hierarchical system in which information in compartmentalized and where power sometimes has to trump compassion is an almost impossible task.
And yet my own dealings with bishops have been, by and large, positive. I have felt supported by the bishops under which I’ve served, and although I may have disagreed with a decision or two along the way, I’ve never felt wounded by their actions. In fact, there are bishops that I consider to be friends as much as episcopal leaders — people who have have worked with me in the past before their election, and who I trust for advice in the practice of my ministry. As the former producer of the General Conference (1992 – 2000) I had the joy of spending time in close contact with various bishops as we worked together on worship and working out the procedures of the day. I learned in that role that bishops are human, just like the rest of us, tasked with a difficult job in a system that hasn’t always been clear about their role.
Let’s face it, the UMC has always been of mixed minds in regards to the office of bishop. As I understand our history, John Wesley was pretty angry at Brother Coke and Brother Asbury’s overreach in being named bishop. In reading Wigger’s excellent biography of Asbury I learned that while he was a strong leader, he was regularly challenged by his clergy who understood that his election came as much from their discernment as any sort of special imprint of the Holy Spirit. While the nature of the episcopacy is written into our constitution, the decision to give our leaders no voice or vote at General Conference is one sign that we aren’t fully comfortable with the place of personal power in the church, and that we believe communal discernment is part of who we are as a people.
And yet, I am sympathetic to the argument that we have not accorded our bishops enough power to lead effectively. There are indeed places in our polity in which their role is ambivalent. In being in relationship with a bunch of bishops over the years I can say that for all of their political adeptness (an adeptness that is necessary for election) all of the bishops I have known deeply love the church and want the best for it. They are as much prisoners of the system as any of us, and like all of us they are seeking for ways to be more effective in our common task of proclaiming the reign of God and forming disciples of Jesus Christ.
The concern for me in Bishop Willimon’s commentary and similar sentiments expressed by other bishops is a seeming bout of wishful thinking in which they wave a wand, say “look the Judicial Council says that we’re charged to lead,” and somehow think that all the “effective pastors” will fall into lock step with the bishop’s priorities and agendas. They imply (although I think they are far smarter than this) that somehow the failure of the General Conference in Tampa is a call to trust the Bishops to work things out, for THEY know how to fix what’s broken in the church. I may be mistaken in my analysis, but it feels to me like they think that trust should be given even though trust has not yet been earned.
Is it possible to earn our trust? Absolutely! In fact, I would guess that many if not most of us– both lay and clergy alike–deeply long for a relationship of trust with our bishops. But what it will take is honesty and engagement.
I may not agree with Bishop Willimon on some things, but the one thing he’s got going for him at some levels is that he basically says what he’s thinking — good or bad. Frankly, most of us don’t know what to do with that for we’ve lived through years of “bishop-speak” where it seems like every comment from our leaders is parsed through a political filter to the point where we have little clue as to what the bishop truly believes. What we need are leaders who are honest about the issues we face, and transparent in their decision making.
Likewise, most of us have very little contact with our bishops, if any at all. We need bishops who value the power of knowing their clergy and their churches, bishops who invest the time and energy to being present in their areas more than attending meetings throughout the world. Yes, our bishops are “general overseers” of the entire church, but perhaps at the next General Conference we need to consider not a set-aside bishop (although I understand their argument for that position) but instead policies that free our bishops up to be more engaged in their local areas, focusing on building better relationships with conference clergy and congregations, and fostering trust.
You see, I love our bishops. I want them to succeed. I want to trust them to lead me.
And at a very basic level, I do trust them.
But my trust can only be given when I know that they trust me too. Trust is a relationship of mutuality, and until we understand that, there will always be a culture of suspicion permeating our church.