Friday, July 13, 2012

Becoming a Bishop

I cannot recall any of the specific lessons taught during our confirmation class but I'll never forget the day we met the bishop. I was a twelve-year-old precocious girl being raised by two goal-oriented parents who taught me the value of setting goals, getting the right job and turning dreams into reality. At the time, Robert Schuller was one of the religious figures I gravitated to weekly, turning my attention to his glass-enclosed building whenever my parents allowed me to stay home from church. I loved his charisma, his passion and his ability to tell stories. He had gifts that I had never before seen in my local church. I did not know any pastors with that kind of charisma until I met Bishop W.T. Handy at the Bishop's annual confirmation rally. 

Bishop Handy could preach, and I was completely taken by him. I was so taken by him, in fact, that during the question and answer period I asked a question that pushed some people to laugh and others to become uncomfortable. Bishop Handy, how much money do bishops make? I still don't know what provoked me to ask that question other than I was in an idealistic phase in life where I believed any job worth having was one that paid a lot of money.

There was something about Bishop Handy that caused me to want to be like him. There was something about his spirit that captivated me. He commanded respect and attention the moment he said, "Good morning!" To this day, I think bishops should have a certain presence about them - that's what Bishop Handy taught me.

I've seen a lot of bishops since that time. I remember going to one Bishop's Retreat filled with joy as I anticipated meeting a new bishop. I watched as the bishop entered a room, said "hello" to a few people and then left to play golf with a group of his buddies and I've had another bishop hold the door while greeting every person coming to a retreat. I have observed compassion overflowing from the lips of some bishops sitting in the presiding bishop's chair at General Conference and watched other bishops lose their patience when people were seeking deep change. I have questioned why some bishops would want to give up the role they currently have to enter the episcopacy and seen others who entered the role as a natural step in life. And, I have become the pastor I am today because of a bishop who continued to stand by my side when my congregation was anything but eager to have me as their pastor, teaching me specific skills from how to be a better preacher to how to turn around a dying church. We have all kinds of bishops.

I'm thinking a lot about what it takes to become a bishop as we prepare for Jurisdictional Conferences to meet next week. I'm the second clergy alternate so I'm not sure if I'll get to cast one vote, but I have read with interest the information received on each episcopal candidate for the Northeast Jurisdiction.

Most of our candidates call themselves visionary leaders. Several of them want to learn a second language. The majority have served in the role of District Superintendent. Some of them are well read. Quite a few of them are working on taking better care of themselves. Most of the candidates followed the directions given for how to format a form. Other candidates showed an inability to follow directions. Some are quick to admit their shortcomings and others seem to have struggled to find their growing edge.

What does it take to become a bishop? What am I looking for in an Episcopal leader?

1) An ability to make disciples of Jesus Christ and lead congregations through change. It's no secret that the United Methodist Church is in decline. Less than half of our congregations are growing. The average age of a United Methodist is increasing. I want a bishop who knows how to make new disciples - someone who has grown churches. If you have not grown churches and made disciples yourself, then how are you going to teach others to do so? Show me a proven track record for leading churches that have grown and made a vital difference in their community, and I am more likely to support you.

2) A commitment to diversity that seeks to radically open the doors of worship, membership and ordination. We talk a lot about racial diversity while forgetting the fact that we are denomination that continues to close its doors to many people. The official teaching of the United Methodist Church describes one-third of my congregation as incompatible with Christian teaching while denying hundreds of people the opportunity to fully accept the claim God has placed on their lives because of their sexuality. If you can only talk about racial diversity, then you are not seeing how our church continues to do real harm to thousands of people. I want a bishop who values diversity at all levels - a bishop who is not afraid to take a stand and say our denomination has to get over its deep-seated prejudices if it is ever going to be the body of Christ.

3) An understanding of what it takes to connect with people who want nothing to do with the church or have been hurt by the church. Our jurisdiction asked every episcopal candidate to respond to the question, "There are roughly 28,000,000 un-churched people in the Northeast Jurisdiction. How would you be 'their bishop?'" 

Labeling people as "saved" and "unsaved" is not going to do it. Fliers are not going to get people in our churches. I want a bishop who understands that church is more than what happens on Sunday mornings. Church is what happens when people are making a difference - a real difference - in a community. People don't want to hear about the church. They want to see the church. And sometimes an invitation to church comes first when we invite someone to help us meet a basic need. Bill Easum recently taught me that every pastor needs to be spending 20 hours a week with unchurched people. It's a huge undertaking. We all need to be spending more time having coffee at Starbucks or even a beer at the bar. I want a bishop who is not afraid to close churches so that new churches can start. I want a bishop who is going to push me to constantly get out into the community. I want a bishop who talks about the unchurched because she knows dozens of unchurched people and not just her two college-aged children who no longer go to church.

4) The capacity to ask pastors about their spiritual lives as much as they ask about our numbers. While I am now asked to report weekly the number of people who come to worship and participate in a small group, I have yet to be asked by anyone in a supervisory role how many hours I spent praying or searching the scriptures in any given week. I want a bishop who knows Jesus, listens to Jesus, walks with Jesus, serves like Jesus, stands alongside of the broken like Jesus, and asks me about how much time I am spending with Jesus vs. simply telling others about Jesus.

5) Someone who will work with their cabinet to strategically make appointments based upon missional needs and specific gifts vs. years of service and salary level. The old boys network has faded away in most places but is still alive and well in other places. Enough said.

Bishops play a crucial role in our denomination. Bishops can lead change and transformation or continue with the status quo. I'm in awe of the people who have offered themselves for this role and praying continuously for God to show us who is being called to equip the saints for ministry.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come and show us the way.

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