Monday, July 23, 2012

It Was a Holy Mess - Jurisdictional Conference Reflections

It was a holy mess.

(That’s the best I can do at 11:40 p.m. on the Friday of Jurisdictional Conference. A holy mess.)

It was a holy time; but it sure was a mess.

It was a messy time; but it was indeed holy.

And in saying that, I am not offering criticism. I left Jurisdictional Conference very proud to be United Methodist. Not because it wasn’t a mess; but rather because of the way we worked in and through the messiness together.

The primary purpose for the Jurisdictional Conference is to elect and appoint bishops. To be elected, a bishop must receive 60% of the votes. There were three bishops needed in our Jurisdiction, and ten people who were endorsed candidates. That meant we had to vote 23 times before getting our three new bishops.

In between each of these votes were opportunities to “caucus” within our Missouri delegation, as well as speak with others if we wished. Now, I’m not naïve. I know that political maneuvering happens in systems such as our beloved United Methodist Church. But it felt weird to me, even to have the word “caucus” spoken in relation to an activity of the church. I think the crux of the matter is, there were too many secrets for a group that is supposed to believe the truth will set us free.

In the course of these conversations, I learned that there was a conference who really wanted one particular candidate for their bishop. They thought he was just the right person to lead this conference in shifting their priorities and helping them think and organize missionally. I think he would have done very well and was voting for him so that he might be sent there.

Of course, I understand that it doesn’t really work that way; the assignments are made by the Episcopacy Committee after the elections. But I kept voting for him because I knew that this conference really wanted him, and I was voting on their behalf. I was trying to vote missionally rather than politically, if that makes sense.

Problem was, they were too small a delegation to have any impact on the elections. Even voting together in a bloc their collective voice was hardly more than a whisper on the floor of the conference. Stated bluntly, the bigger conferences organize efficiently and end up getting exactly what they want. Again, that’s not a criticism; that’s simply how it works.

However, the end result of the elections and assignments is actually really good. From what I know of the three new bishops and the three areas to which they have been assigned, some really good things are going to be happening in the UMC in our jurisdiction over the next few years. Cynthia Harvey, Gary Mueller, and Mike McKee are gifted leaders and creative visionaries, and the denomination is a better place with the three of them in episcopal roles.

And that smaller conference who really wanted that particular person for bishop? It turns out that they haven’t been assigned a bishop at this point (more on that later), instead they will receive two retired bishops to serve on an interim basis, leaving open the possibility that they may receive the person of their choice anyway, although the process by which that may or may not happen is in no way clear at this time.

Another thing I noticed: In between votes there were reports given from various groups within the Jurisdiction. Now, at Annual Conference these reports are times of celebration and support. At Jurisdictional Conference they felt kind of like time fillers. There were times I felt really bad for the people giving reports, because it seemed like hardly anyone in the room was truly paying attention to them, let alone celebrating and supporting.

And then there was the whole set of circumstances around the involuntary retirement of Bishop Earl Bledsoe of the North Texas Conference. (Back  story) While there are many perspectives and opinions being expressed and I encourage you to read and understand all of them, no single perspective can see the whole story. All I can offer is what I saw.

I saw a Jurisdictional Conference holding a bishop accountable for ineffective administrative leadership.

It was intense. I cannot adequately describe the emotion of the room as the process unfolded. Don House, the chair of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee, and Bishop Robert Hayes, who presided over the session at which the vote was taken, handled the situation with dignity and grace, and projected a calm and solemn attitude that was appropriate to the significance of the moment.

Two members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee are from Missouri, and were involved in the lengthy hearings at that level. Rev. Cody Collier and Larry Fagan are to be highly commended for their faithfulness and diligence, and both were obviously drained by the experience, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. My admiration and respect for each of these men has grown exponentially.

I do not believe this was a racist attempt to oust a black bishop in favor of a white one. Nor do I believe this is an example of the “good ol boy network” trying to shelter one of their own from further repercussions. These are two examples of opinions I have read that I simply cannot agree with. They just do not align with the way I experienced this process.

No, the delegates to the conference who are not on the committee are not privy to all of the details. Some see this as a "cover-up." I see it as entrusting a group of colleagues with work that is best left to a smaller group to do. Knowing personally and trusting deeply two of the Episcopacy Committee members and hearing their summary and recommendation is enough for me.

As a denomination, we have wondered together about accountability. There has been renewed emphasis on accountability for pastors, and parallel to that, questions about how to hold bishops accountable, also. This is what we saw at Jurisdictional Conference last week: a process by which bishops can be held accountable for ineffective administrative leadership.

It started when the North Texas Conference Episcopacy Committee expressed their desire that Bishop Bledsoe not be re-assigned to North Texas. That would be similar to a local congregation’s Church Council (or Staff/Parish Relations Committee) letting their pastor know that they would like a change in appointment. That’s when Bishop Bledsoe announced he would retire. And then he reversed course and decided to remain an active bishop. The matter then moved to the next level of our system, the Jurisdiction.

The Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy worked diligently and faithfully to study the situation and discern the best way to resolve it. They heard from multiple sources, they spent many hours with Bishop Bledsoe himself, they prayed for wisdom and guidance, and they came to a recommendation they considered to be the most gracious and just resolution. They brought that recommendation to the entire Conference, we heard from Bishop Bledsoe himself, we considered it and prayed over it, and voted to affirm their recommendation.

And that’s what happened.

As of September 1, Bishop Bledsoe will be a retired bishop. If he decides to appeal the decision to the United Methodist Judicial Council (like our denominational Supreme Court), he will remain in retired status as the process is advancing. As I mentioned before, one of our Annual Conferences is being served by two retired bishops, on an interim basis. Some news articles are reporting that he will be an active bishop as the appeal is happening; that is not my understanding of the situation.

In his remarks, Bishop Bledsoe said that there is a process in place by which a complaint against a bishop can be brought, addressed, and resolved. He implied a preference for this process rather than the one that unfolded. He has a point. That is indeed one of the processes that might have played out here. The end result of that process, if the complaint is justified, can be harsh, including the removal of clergy credentials.

The process that was followed comes from paragraph 408.3 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which allows a Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee to place a bishop in retired relationship by 2/3 vote if it is “in the best interests of the bishop and/or the church.” The process was fair, gracious, and just.

It was messy; it was holy.

It was messy because accountability is hard sometimes, especially when it is a beloved bishop being held accountable. It was holy because the mission of God for the church was always at the forefront of the conversation, and all that was done was done with grace and love.

So that’s what I’m going with, still - a holy mess. A messy holiness? We are in the world, and not of it. We are both already and not yet. We are sinners forgiven. We are a bunch of screwed up people trying to do the best we can to realize the reign of God on earth.

We are the church. We are the United Methodist portion of the Church, specifically. And we do things well together. It is rarely easy. It is often messy. And by the grace of God, it is holy.


Steve Williams said...

How glad I am to have discovered this blog. Andy, your observations and words are gracious, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. Thank you so much!

Randall said...

Andy, thanks for your thoughtful reflections on what was certainly a mess, and nonetheless a mess through which God was clearly able to work. I think that on the continuum between sacred and secular (if such a thing exists), we have to recognize that there is indeed a "messy middle" where the boundaries between the two extremes don't always present themselves so neatly. It's easy to clutch at our pearls and act as if we're offended by the process, but it's the only process we've got (for now), and I still believe God can (and does) work in the process. As a member of that smaller annual conference you speak of, I'd be curious to see how you unpack the implications of our interim assignment (which we're pretty happy with, although we're anticipating further developments down the road). Let me know if you want to compare notes on that some time, and I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to talk at SJC. Blessings!