Rebuilding Trust — The Bishop’s and DS’s Dilemma

As I stated a couple of days ago, one of the struggles we face in the United Methodist Church is a lack of trust. While this is true at all levels, the place where it seems to be most before us today is in the relationship between the local church pastor and the D.S. and Bishop. In many ways, the resistance to the Call to Action process is rooted in inability of pastors to fully trust that their leaders are there to support them during the difficult times of ministry. “Yes, we are willing to offer leadership,” some of these pastors say, “but when we challenge the status quo in a congregation we want to know D.S. and Bishop that you are there to support us when the congregation pushes back.”

One commenter noted in a previous post:

In the last several years I have wondered if Bishops respect us pastor’s. When I hear my bishop speak in public I hear that we are to blame for the decline in the UMC, but when I speak with him privately I get a different perspective.

He goes on to suggest that perhaps the Bishops need to spend less time traveling abroad and more time visiting the circuits under their charge to develop relationship and get a clearer picture of life in these congregations.

We should make no mistake — the shaky trust between the active clergy and the episcopal leader who offer them leadership has always been with us. In reading <a href="American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists""“>John Wigger’s excellent biography of Francis Asbury, page upon page was spent in recounting the conflicts that arose between  Bishop (Asbury) and those he led. While there are some today who believe that we need to return to the Asburyan model of episcopal authority with an iron fist, what was striking to me was Asbury’s own internal struggles in dealing with the varied needs of clergy. It was clear that Asbury felt pulled between the demands of spreading scriptural holiness across the land and the needs of those charged with that task.

No, the problem of trust has been with us since the very beginnings of our movement, and while I am idealist of sorts, I recognize that the forces that make trust difficult will likely continue. However, I wonder if part of the problem — the dilemma Bishop’s and D.S.’s face — isn’t rooted in part to how they experience the active clergy more often than not — as a problem.

It seems to me that an occupational hazard of serving in the D.S. and Bishop office is that more often than not you are being called to fix problems rather than engage in relationships, and in those offices many of the problems are related to clergy issues. These “problems” include dealing with the needs of clergy families in appointment making, addressing concerns raised by the laity about their pastor not doing enough or doing too much, responding to the letters and comments from pastors who think that the D.S. and/or bishop are clueless and less than effective in their jobs. The life of the D.S. in particular seems directed at putting out fires rather than engaging in the proactive and fulfilling work of gospel spreading, and very often those fires are connected to one pastor or another who has done something stupid and has led a congregation to the brink of disaster. If I were a Bishop or a D.S., I can imagine that it would be easy to find myself looking down on a congregation from on-high and thinking that if I were serving in that church down there, I could do this or that better. It’s human nature at some level to engage in armchair quarterbacking, and when the majority of our dealings are with “problem” clergy, it would be easy to fall into the trap of seeing ALL clergy as a problem.

Of course this is a generalistic view that doesn’t fully capture the nuance of actual relationships. However, when the Bishop’s only connection to the clergy he or she serves is largely through administrative or ceremonial occasions, it’s easy to see how trust can be elusive. When the only contact with a D.S. is at the monthly District Minister’s Meeting, it’s hard to develop a relationship of trust.

I’ve mentioned before the best D.S. I’ve observed in my time of ministry, Ed Tomlinson in the North Georgia Conference back in the late ’90’s. Ed recognized the need for relationship space among clergy, and in his own relationships with the pastors. So every week, Ed would host a dutch treat breakfast in three different locations in the district (it was a large district) for pastors to gather not with any particular agenda, but simply to visit and share with one another. Yes, he would make the occasional announcement and transact some occasional business — but it was much more casual and much more relational. Sure, it required a big sacrifice in time, but it was worth it in that it led to a much more collegial relationship and allowed Ed to experience his pastor’s as much more than problems.

It will require that kind of attention to building relationships before folks can embrace the accountability envisioned in the Call to Action process. Yes, we need more leaders like Asbury, but not iron fisted dictators leading from on high as some think, for Asbury put his life on the line for his pastors. Asbury risked his own health to ride from place to place, charge to charge, circuit to circuit, to offer support to those in his care. Yes, he demanded much of the clergy, but only because he demanded much of himself and he had the saddle sores to prove it. It was only through traveling with his clergy, breaking bread with them, and demonstrating his commitment to them that trust was maintained, and that trust became the basis for a clergy corp that would follow him wherever he led them.


3 thoughts on “Rebuilding Trust — The Bishop’s and DS’s Dilemma

  1. I heartily agree with the power of the relational tie between DS and clergy. I had a DS who met with us regularly without an agenda in order to know us as people and encourage us in our ministry. It did build trust. When I had a crisis in my first appointment, he stood by me and, as a result, we had a major spiritual breakthrough which led to dozens of new families pouring into the church.

  2. Ed is my DS now! He still does breakfasts around the district each week. It is a real blessing, not only as far as spending time with him, but in terms of being with one another.

  3. Jay–thanks for this insightful post. I’m now working with my 3rd DS and my experience has run the gamut from, “who thought this person could be a DS” through feeling isolated because of a no news is good news philosophy to my current DS who has articulated his confidence in me and has made it clear that he will back me up. He has even gone so far as explaining what that might look like when I gave him a heads up about a potential conflict. My current DS, Rev. Dr. Bart Hildreth, is a really good DS, good enough that I’ve thought more than once that he should be teaching/coaching other DS’s. I’m also blessed to be under the authority of a bishop that I respect even when I don’t agree with him. But i digress.
    Part of the challenge is that while there is a feedback and evaluation loop, formal and informal, from the DS to the pastor, there is not really such a loop from the pastors to the DS, and beyond that to the Bishop. The congregation can call the DS, or the bishop–ours has openly told pastors that such calls will be bounced back to the DS, and they can express their opinions/feelings/judgments in annual reviews. To date, while I would guess there is a process for evaluating DS’s, I’ve not been given the opportunity to participate in such a process. I know there is a process for evaluating bishops, yet I don’t know where the “data” for that process comes from.

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