This is the season for Annual Conferences, for the appointment of United Methodist pastors, in short, it’s a season of bishops. Bishop, published in 2012 by Abingdon, contains some of my thoughts and insights from my eight years as active bishop in the United Methodist Church. These are some of my thoughts from the first chapter of that book. The book caused much interest among AME’s, Nazarenes, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. Not much response from fellow UM’s. Perhaps it’s insights hit too close to home?
It’s a typical Sunday morning for Patsy and me. We drive past fallow fall fields, trustworthy GPS coaxing us down the rural roadway. Just over an hour outside of Birmingham we descend a low hill, the trees part, and we see a little white frame church, a building that is type cast as everyone’s idea of a church. An hour before the service only a few pickup trucks have gathered in the church’s gravel lot. Spotting an aging Ford Taurus parked in the shade, I comment knowledgeably, “At least the pastor is here.”
“Though this county has lost a third of its population, it now has the third highest influx of Spanish speaking people. That building was built after the fire – in the Forties – they still call it ‘the new church,’” I say, showing off my reading. It is my custom to ask for a summary of the demographic context and the congregational history when I make a Sunday visit. While my sermon preparation is helped by knowledge of the congregation’s past, the sad truth is that most of my congregations have more history behind them than future before them.
The majority of the congregations in my Conference, like the one where I’m the visiting preacher today, are located where they were planted a century ago. In every case, the community that gave them birth has relocated. Though the people around the congregation have changed, the congregation has remained fixed on the same land where it was established and, in many cases, fixed in the same rhythms of congregational life that worked for them decades ago, but no longer work today.
That’s one of the things people love about a church – it doesn’t move. It blooms where planted and, long after it withers, stays planted. We build our churches to look at least two hundred years older than they actually are. Inside, we bolt down the pews and make the furniture heavy and substantial. That the world around the church is chaotic and instable is a further justification for the church to be fixed and final.
One of my younger churches worships in the “contemporary worship” idiom. The pastor complained to me of boredom: “We are singing the same songs, using the same pattern of worship that we’ve been stuck with for the past twenty years. Worst of all, we call it ‘contemporary’!”
“Why not change?” I asked naively.
“This is a highly mobile suburban neighborhood,” he explained. “Only a couple of my members have been here longer than I. The last thing my people want is for church to force even more change. Contemporary has become our hallowed, immutable tradition.”
In a time when many feel overwhelmed by change – the government’s economic attack on the middle class, high unemployment among our young adults, shifting political alliances, soaring debt to pay for the biggest military in the world, the demise of once sound institutions, changing social mores, the information explosion – the church is tapped to play the role of island of stability amid a sea of change.
What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution “the Body of Christ.” All the gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless peripatetic. Never once did he say, “Settle down with me.” No, with vagabond Jesus it was always, “Follow me!”
Consider the first days of Christ’s resurrected life. Not content just to be raised from the dead, the risen Christ is in motion, returning to the rag-tag group of Galilean losers who had failed him. (Matthew 28:16-20)
And what does Jesus say? “You have had a rough time. Settle down in Galilee among these good country folk with whom you are most comfortable. Buy real estate, build a church, get a good mortgage, and enjoy being a spiritual club”? No. The risen Christ commands, “Get out of here! Make me disciples, baptizing and teaching everything I’ve commanded! And don’t limit yourselves to Judea. Go to everybody. I’ll stick with you until the end of time — just to be sure you obey me.”
How like the rover Jesus to disallow his people rest. Refusing to permit them to hunker down with their own kind, he sent those who had so disappointed him forth on the most perilous of missions. They were, in Jesus’ name, to take back the world that belonged to God. There is no way to be with Jesus, to love Jesus, without obeying Jesus, venturing with Jesus. “Go! Make disciples!”
The UMC ought rejoice in a new generation of episcopal leaders who feel called not only to administer the church but also to lead the church, not simply to manage an ecclesiastical system but to push, pull, cajole, and threaten that system to become again the Body of Christ in motion. At one time in our church life bishops were the personification of stability, our link with the past, our assurance that, despite any minor modifications, we were still doing church in fairly much the same way that church had always been done.
Today I’m excited that we have a growing group of bishops who are not simply allowing but also leading change. Their transformative leadership arises not only from institutional but also from theological concerns. Though we have a rapidly shrinking and declining church on our hands we are also in the hands of a Savior who was crucified because he destabilized the messianic expectations of the faithful and was resurrected as sign of God’s determination not to allow death have the last word.
Leading and Managing the Body of Christ
Our Service of Consecration for Bishops says succinctly what bishops are for:
You have been ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament;
you are now called, as bishop in the Church,
to reaffirm the vows made at your ordination as elder,
and to represent Christ’s servanthood in a special ministry of oversight.
You are called to guard the faith, to seek the unity,
and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church;
and to supervise and support the Church’s life, work,
and mission throughout the world.
As servant of the whole Church,
you are called to preach and teach
the truth of the gospel to all God’s people;
to lead the people in worship,
in the celebration of the Sacraments,
and in their mission of witness and service in the world,
and so participate in the gospel command
to make disciples of all nations.
As bishop and pastor,
you are to lead and guide
all persons entrusted to your oversight;
join in the consecration of bishops,
ordain deacons, and elders,
consecrate diaconal ministers,
for service to the Church and to the world;
and provide for the ministry of Word and Sacrament
in the congregations committed to your care.
Your joy will be to follow Jesus the Christ
whom came not to be served but to serve.
Will you accept the call to this ministry as bishop
and fulfill this trust in obedience to Christ?
I will, by the grace of God.
Will you guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline
of the Church against all that is contrary to God’s World?
I will, for the love of God.
My only cavil is that the service’s opening verbs — “guard,” “represent,” “administer,” “supervise,” “support” — are not active enough to characterize the work of a new breed of UM bishops. Shove, coax, cajole, bargain, and beg is more true to what we bishops now do by the grace of and for the love of God.
To perform “the special ministry of oversight,” bishops, like all ministers of the gospel, are called. Jesus Christ gets his movement in motion by vocation, calling a group of ordinary people to help him do the work of the Kingdom. His saving work was the communal reconstitution of the scattered lost sheep of Israel, not merely an appeal to a group of isolated individuals. Jesus Christ is God’s definitive statement to humanity that God refuses to be God alone. Ever the great delegator, Jesus chooses not to save the world by himself. That’s where we come in, even bishops. We’re all here, doing whatever we are doing for the Kingdom because we’re called, put here, assigned, sent.
 The United Methodist Book of Worship, (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992), 703.