By Heather Hahn*
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. (UMNS) — United Methodist bishops must take a greater leadership role in shaping the church's future, the president of the Council of Bishops said on Monday (May 2, 2011).
"Today, I want to invite you, my sisters and brothers, not simply to lean but to lead into the future," said Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster, referring to his comment at a previous meeting that the bishops should lean forward into the future, "to seize this moment to exercise our corporate leadership to make a difference in the world – and in this denomination we care so deeply about."
But he acknowledged church leaders face a challenge in gauging what sort of guidance United Methodists need.
"No one wants autocratic leaders, but at the same time no one wants indecisive leaders," said Goodpaster, who leads the denomination's Charlotte (N.C.) Area. "No one wants leaders who have an agenda that may drive an organization toward destruction, and yet everyone wants leaders who cast a vision. How then shall we lead?"
He delivered his presidential address to 113 of the denomination's 230 active and retired bishops (including Cal-Nevada's Bishop Warner H. Brown, Jr.) at the United Methodist retreat center Epworth By The Sea, where John and Charles Wesley once tried to minister to Georgia colonists.
The future founders of Methodism had a hard time in the New World.
Goodpaster was speaking during another challenging time, as denominational leaders seek to address the impact of the world's economic crisis and The United Methodist Church's decades-long membership decline in the United States. Church leaders denomination-wide are discussing implementing recommendations from a Call to Action proposal which would restructure the church and increase accountability for greater congregational vitality.
Early bishop's example
During this tumultuous period for the church, Goodpaster suggested bishops use as their leadership model the first Methodist bishop in the United States, Francis Asbury.
Asbury, Goodpaster said, exemplified piety, perseverance, servant leadership, pop-culture savvy, and "brilliant" administration.
The pioneering bishop, who helped spread Methodism in the late 1700s and early 1800s, knew how to connect with ordinary people and bring them into Christian discipleship.
Goodpaster pointed to Asbury's emphasis on people in addressing critics who say Call to Action team members and other advocates of church metrics "have crossed over to the idol worship of numbers."
"We must constantly remind ourselves that it is not just about numbers," Goodpaster said, "but always about people, and about inviting and nurturing them into a vibrant relationship with Jesus the Christ."
As the council meets this week, Goodpaster said, "we will be invited to think, talk, discern, and perhaps even decide about an alternative design for leading this branch of God's church."
Denver Area Bishop Elaine J. W. Stanovsky appreciated Goodpaster's reminder of Asbury's legacy.
The lessons from the past, she said, "give us the gifts that will lead us into the future."
"We know in our bones who we need to be and what we need to do," she said. "We just need to listen and be as faithful to following God as we can be."
Voice of hope
Mozambique Area Bishop Joaquina Felipe Nhanala called Goodpaster's address a "message of hope."
Goodpaster concluded his address, perhaps fittingly for the Easter season, by talking of Christ's Resurrection. Goodpaster reminded the bishops that in Mark's Gospel, the disciples learned the newly risen Christ was "going ahead" of them to Galilee. Jesus continues to go ahead, the bishop said.
"I also have a hunch that we will never catch up with him," Goodpaster said. "That does not mean we do not try to close the gap between where Jesus is calling us and where we might prefer to stay."
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
Editor's Note: This particular semi-annual gathering is distinguished by the fact that it is intended to be totally "paperless." Bishops who have an iPad or Kindle are using them at the meeting to download and review reports, and those who do not have one have been provided an electronic means of downloading reports and work. In addition, the news media is being granted access to public documents via the Web, rather than being handed paper copies of news releases.