Bishops Gather for Closed Retreat

November 08, 2012

A UMNS Report
By Heather Hahn*

United Methodist bishops from around the globe are gathered for a private retreat, Nov. 4-9, intended to establish a spiritual grounding for their work together during the next four years.
Among the roughly 125 active and retired bishops who had planned to attend the event at Epworth-by-the Sea on St. Simons Island, Georgia, are the 14 new episcopal leaders, who were elected this summer and fall.
"It is important that we start our journey into a new quadrennium by taking time for prayer, reflection, and discernment so that we ourselves practice the spiritual disciplines in order to become, by God's grace, the leadership group the Church expects us to be," said Bishop Rosemarie Wenner, the Council of Bishops president. She also leads Germany's episcopal area.
The agenda for the gathering includes Bible study, reviews of various requirements for bishops, and guided conversations on such topics as being one body in Christ. The bishops also will join in frequent worship including daily Communion, said Bishop Peter D. Weaver, recently retired from the Boston Area and now the Council of Bishops executive secretary.
"Every time new bishops are elected, we become a new council," Weaver said. "So our first meeting together is first about becoming spiritually centered and building new community as we seek to fulfill the mission Christ has given us and the leadership roles the Church expects of us. So this time is not about 'motions and voting' but rather going deep in loving God and one another and asking, 'What does the Lord require of us?'"
He likened the gathering to a congregational or covenant discipleship retreat.
It is open only to bishops, their spouses, and some limited staff. United Methodist News Service, other United Methodist journalists and outside observers were told not to attend.
However, the retreat comes at a time when bishops are facing increasing questions about their accountability — including from many bishops themselves.
Accountability questions
The question of bishops' responsibility for increasing vital congregations came up at the most recent Council of Bishops meeting in April.
Bishop Charles N. Crutchfield, now retired, made a motion that the council approved, to have its executive committee develop "some identifiable procedure or process" for active and retired bishops to hold each other accountable.
Since then, the executive committee has held just one meeting, and its other business did not leave much time to address Crutchfield's motion, Wenner said.
"The question of accountability is on our agenda, but it is too early to announce concrete results," she said.
The topics of accountability and fruitfulness were on the council's retreat agenda for the morning of Tuesday, Nov. 6.
"When we talk about 'vital congregations,' leadership, and restructuring the life of the (Council of Bishops), we will have to talk about accountability," Wenner said. "I do not wish to speak of my expectations, since it is on the council to talk and develop the way forward."
She also said "the discussion format will be an interactive time of listening to one another and of discernment."
"I am trusting the Holy Spirit is leading us."
Other challenges
But questions about bishops' accountability go beyond the drive for more fruitful congregations.
Since the summer, bishops have faced increasing scrutiny, and three bishops, in particular, have been at the center of three very different controversies.
In July, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference affirmed a recommendation by its episcopacy committee to compel Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe's early retirement based on evaluations of the bishop. Bledsoe, who formerly led the North Texas Annual Conference, is appealing the decision to the Judicial Council, the denomination's top court, which has scheduled a hearing on the matter Nov. 9-11.
Bishop Daniel Wandabula, who leads the East Africa Conference, has faced concerns about the use of funds in the Conference. Until auditing issues are resolved, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries has suspended funds to the Conference, and the General Council on Finance and Administration — the denomination's finance agency — has recommended that other Church bodies cut off their financial support. The Judicial Council recently deferred until April a ruling on the Western Pennsylvania Conference's questions regarding the handling of funds in East Africa and the handling of a complaint against Wandabula.
The United Methodist Church's continued disputes about sexuality issues also confront bishops. More than 70 United Methodist clergy and lay people in the United States have urged the Council of Bishops to censure publicly retired Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, accusing him of encouraging disobedience to the denomination's stance against the practice of homosexuality.
Wenner said she could not speculate on whether any of these matters might come up in discussion. "But these are not matters before the council," she said.
Talbert said he is aware that some bishops hope to address the Western Jurisdiction's "Biblical Obedience" movement to encourage United Methodists to act as if Paragraph 161F in the denomination's law book "does not exist." That paragraph outlines the church's position that the practice of homosexuality "is incompatible with Christian teaching."
The Western Jurisdiction's statement has already prompted a rare public disagreement among active bishops.
Before the meeting began, Talbert said the bishops would not know whether the Biblical Obedience movement would be discussed until the council was in session.
"Personally, I'm going to this meeting at peace," he said. "I'm not worried about what may happen to me. My only desire is to be a faithful witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Looking back, looking forward
The retreat marks the first time the bishops have gathered since seeing some of their initiatives, intended to foster vitality, not pass the 2012 General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking assembly, while others were overturned by the Judicial Council.
A proposed amendment to the denomination's constitution, to create a new fulltime role for the Council of Bishops president, fell short of the two-thirds vote it needed to pass General Conference.
The church's Judicial Council also overturned 'Plan UMC,' a proposal to restructure the denomination's general agencies, which had the backing of most bishops and the majority of General Conference delegates.
In the past week, the Judicial Council also overturned legislation some bishops helped draft that would have eliminated guaranteed appointments for ordained elders and associate members in good standing.
However, bishops say these setbacks should not diminish their commitment to a decade-long focus on fostering congregational vitality.
"We need to look at how we can best move forward, given the decisions — how we can work toward greater cooperation and more fruitfulness so that we might achieve the aims behind Plan UMC and the changes in the appointment system even without structural changes," Wenner said.
The Church and closed meetings
Paragraph 721 in the Book of Discipline, the denomination's law book, calls for church bodies to hold open meetings and restricts closed sessions to only certain matters, including real estate, personnel, legal consultation, and negations.
However, the provision does offer bishops more leeway. "While it is expected that the General Conference, the Judicial Council, and the Council of Bishops will live by the spirit of this paragraph, each of these constitutional bodies is governed by its own rules of procedure," the paragraph says.
The Council of Bishops has held private retreats at the beginning of each new quadrennium multiple times, said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, who recently retired from the Los Angeles Area and now is the council's ecumenical officer.
"It is an effort for us to truly become community as a new group," she said. "A number of years ago Bishop Ken Carder presented a paper on 'Beloved Community,' using the phrase that Martin Luther King Jr. used. Every quadrennium since then, we have focused on God's call for us to live as beloved community in the Council of Bishops."
The next public meeting of the Council of Bishops will be in May in San Diego, California.
*Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service.