The Who, When, Where and How of Electing Bishops

March 12, 2008

(Adapted from “The Not-So-Secret Rites of Electing Episcopal Leadership,” California-Pacific Conference website, February 28, 2008)

Where do Bishops come from? The presidential primaries are an example of how complicated electing leadership can be – but while our process is similar, it is thankfully more straightforward.


The focus of our Episcopal elections is the Jurisdictional Conference, held every four years after General Conference. The delegates we elected last year to General and Jurisdictional Conference, plus alternates, will gather with the other Western Jurisdiction Conference delegates this July 16-19 in Portland, Oregon. (The Western Jurisdiction includes all Conferences from roughly the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific Ocean, including the Alaska Missionary Conference.)


The essential and unique purpose of the Jurisdictional Session is to elect Bishop(s.)


How does that happen?

Let’s begin with “how many Bishops are there?” and “how many do we need?” Both of those are very live questions and the first one is easy: there are six Episcopal Areas in this (Western) Jurisdiction, so there are six Bishops. (Yes, there are seven Annual Conferences, plus the Alaska Missionary Conference, but Areas can be composed of more than one Annual Conference – a sort of two-point charge for the assigned Bishop.)


How many Bishops do we need?

There is an (of course) complicated formula that considers the population in a region, and the number of congregations and members serving the Area. General Conference has considered tweaking that formula in order to reduce the total number of active Bishops in the denomination (currently 50 in the U.S. and another 18 abroad.) Given the population density in the West, and the lower ratio of Methodists in the Western States’ population, this Jurisdiction could forfeit one Bishop – if those recommendations come to pass.


For now, there are six Bishops serving the West. In order of seniority, they are Swenson, Paup, Shamana, Brown, Carcano and Hoshibata. Because Bishops are elected for life, vacancies – historically – have been created intentionally only by retirement: this season, California-Nevada Conference Bishop Beverly J. Shamana (formerly of the Cal-Pacific Conference) is slated to retire. That means one vacancy, but coupled with the history-making resignation of Bishop Paup, there will be two elections in July 2008.


How will that happen?

Objectively, it begins with that “basic body of the Church, the Annual Conference.” When each Conference meets in June, members may vote to endorse one or more candidates (or none, if they so choose.) These endorsements function as a collective nomination to the Jurisdictional Session. But what about before that?


How does one become nominated?

Perhaps the key element is the nominee’s own sense of calling: Bishop Shamana has said that she did not enter into the nomination process without “a lot of prayer and counseling – you’ve got to be sure you understand your motivation to go into this.”


Once you’ve agreed to “let your name go forward,” then the process takes over.



Near the opening of the Jurisdictional Session, the names of those endorsed by Annual Conferences are reported. Then an open ballot is taken, in which people may put down the name of any elder in good standing. This ballot is tallied, and all those who receive 10 percent of the valid ballots are added to the list of endorsed nominations. Now the real race begins.


Each nominee must provide something like a resume’ to be duplicated and distributed among all the delegates. In short order, a schedule is drawn up so that each nominee meets on a rotating basis with sub-groups of the Jurisdictional Session (usually organized by combining two or more Conferences.) These forums are the opportunity for candidates to make statements and respond to questions. The Western Jurisdiction has developed a very humane system for doing this, one which past candidates report has created real kinship among the candidates as they undergo this inherently challenging process.


Once the forums are completed, the balloting begins in earnest. During the three days of voting, ballots will be taken over and over again, until one name receives a majority of the valid ballots cast. In between balloting and tallying, various reports and other business of the Session are accomplished. As soon as the ballots are tallied, they are delivered to the presiding Bishop: each time, a report is given stating the total number of ballots taken, along with the number of invalid and valid ballots received (this defines the number of valid ballots needed to constitute a majority, and thus an election.) Many, many times the session will hear the Bishop say, “so-and-so number of valid ballots cast, X number needed to elect…(dramatic pause)… there is no election.” The next ballot is usually taken right away, with a word of prayer offered first, often by a retired Bishop.


But it is in the reporting of who did get how many votes that the election process coalesces around the leading candidates, and ultimately produces an election. Additional question and answer sessions are arranged, and sometimes one Conference asks to meet with a specific candidate. Of course, there is a lot of talking in the hallways and yes, there is some bartering – i.e. “We want to support our nominee for two more ballots, but if she doesn’t pick up more support, we’ll throw our support behind your candidate, if you’ll agree to do the same for ours.”


A Bishop is elected

Finally after many ballots, there will come the dramatic pause, followed by – “We have an election!” Usually there is a burst of vocalized relief (the West has a reputation for dragging out the balloting process as long as humanly possible.) Then every breath is taken back and held in silence as the Bishop says, “You have elected __________!” Applause erupts, most everyone stands, and usually that Bishop who helped to mentor the newly elected Bishop will come down and escort the “newbie” up to the front. There, the new Bishop will immediately receive a small enameled Episcopal insignia pinned to her or his clothing, thus marking that she or he is now fully a Bishop. The precise time will also be recorded, for that establishes the electee’s seniority relative to the Bishops being newly elected in other Jurisdictions.


Next, the new Bishop is expected offer a few words and a prayer will be offered for him or her. A break usually follows, at which point the new Bishop is escorted into a very private meeting with representatives who will begin gathering crucial personal data. This is because his or her status is now already officially Episcopal: if he or she were to suffer a heart attack at that moment, the Episcopal health insurance plan would cover it!


The subsequent rites of consecration formalize the new Bishop’s new role as a “general superintendent of the church,” but that is all after the fact: once the presiding Bishop announces the name, that person is a Bishop of the United Methodist Church.