TAMPA, Fla. — (UMNS) In The United Methodist Church’s drive to increase vital congregations, the watchword of the day is “accountability.”
The 2010 Call to Action report that launched the current focus on church vitality urges the denomination to reform clergy accountability, consolidate agencies and give active bishops “responsibility ... for establishing a new culture of accountability throughout the church.”
So in practice, what will a “culture of accountability” look like?
Delegates to the 2012 United Methodist General Conference will have a big influence on that picture. The global denomination’s top lawmaking body starts its 10-day gathering today in Tampa, Fla.
The delegates will take up proposals to merge general agencies and streamline their boards. They also will grapple with legislation from the Study of Ministry Commission to eliminate “security of appointment” for U.S. elders in good standing.
Many annual (regional) conferences already are using “dashboards” to track church metrics for worship attendance, professions of faith and missional engagement and help measure clergy performance.
Betty Katiyo, a lay delegate from West Zimbabwe, wonders whether these changes really will really a difference where it counts.
“If we fail to have vital congregations –– who is responsible for that failure?” she asked during an April 23 pre-conference briefing. “To me, the person who is answerable is the bishop.”
With all the talk of greater accountability for clergy and agency staff, many United Methodists like Katiyo are asking how bishops also can be more answerable for the church’s well-being — including many bishops themselves.
The topic came up at the Council of Bishops meeting that preceded General Conference.
“I think that at some point, there needs to be some identifiable procedure or process, I don’t know what you’d call it, for us holding one another accountable,” Arkansas Area Bishop Charles N. Crutchfield told his colleagues. “Since I am about to retire, I think that would extend in some measure to retired bishops, not just active bishops.”
The council approved Crutchfield’s motion to have its executive committee develop mechanics for such accountability.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, limits how bishops can interact with their colleagues, Charlotte (N.C.) Area Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster told United Methodist News Service. He completes his term this week as president of the Council of Bishops and chair of its executive committee.
“We can encourage,” he said. “We can make suggestions. But none of us can go into another area, and say, ‘You’re not doing this. You need to do this.’ I think it’s much more about having healthy conversations — what’s going on, what’s not working.”
Defining what accountability looks like for bishops will be a huge task for the executive committee, he said.
Meanwhile, Goodpaster — like many United Methodists — waits to see what decisions the 2012 General Conference will make regarding the Council of Bishops.
The Council of Bishops has submitted an amendment to the denomination’s constitution that would allow the council to elect one of its own to a full-time, four-year position as president without the usual responsibilities of overseeing a geographic area.
Some bishops have argued that the new post, also endorsed by Call to Action leaders, would help bishops be more accountable for fostering vital congregations in their conferences. Still, critics of the measure worry the position would upset the denomination’s balance of power between bishops and other clergy and laity.
To be ratified, a constitutional amendment first requires a two-thirds majority vote at the 2012 General Conference. It next must win a two-thirds majority of the total annual (regional) conference voters. If the amendment is ratified, the earliest start date for a non-residential bishop would be 2014.
Another accountability measure many bishops support would eliminate job guarantees for ordained elders in the United States.
The 27-member ministry study commission, which included three bishops, has submitted legislation that would allow bishops and cabinets to give an elder in good standing a less than full-time appointment. The legislation also would permit bishops and their cabinets, with the approval of their boards of ordained ministry and annual (regional) conference clergy session, to put elders on unpaid transitional leave for up to 24 months. Clergy on transitional leave would be able to participate in their conference health program through their own contributions.
The petition also would require jurisdictional committees on episcopacy, which oversee U.S. bishops, to annually review and evaluate bishops’ effectiveness, including whether they are practicing open itinerancy of women and people of color.
“We need to be held to the same standards of accountability, and perhaps even more so,” said Seattle Area Bishop Grant Hagiya, a commission member. “Our episcopacy committees must be empowered to address such issues with bishops as standard operating procedure. More than that, we bishops must put ourselves forward –– leading the call for accountability by starting with ourselves.”
Under the Book of Discipline, if two-thirds of a jurisdictional or a central conference episcopacy committee approve, a bishop may be placed on involuntary retirement.
Katiyo of West Zimbabwe has her own recommendation for increasing accountability of bishops: Limit their tenure.
Individual United Methodists have submitted at least six proposed constitutional amendments to do just that. The General Conference petitions would limit bishops to eight years of active service or allow jurisdictions and central conferences to set limits of their own. The petitions will be considered by the Superintendency Legislative Committee, which may recommend that the nearly 1,000 delegates adopt, defeat or amend these petitions.
Bishop Goodpaster opposes such a move.
“Do we want leaders or do we want managers?” he said. “A manager comes in and does the job for one or two quadrennia and is gone. If you want to lead long-term change in the church, (you need long-tenured bishops) the same way it’s often long-tenured pastors who make the difference in local churches.”
At least one bishop supports term limits for bishops as well as more flexibility for dismissing ineffective clergy.
“I’m certainly experiencing the joys and the leadership empowerment that comes from a two quadrennial stint as bishop,” said Birmingham (Ala.) Area Bishop Will Willimon. “So I’m a big believer in bishops working hard, working smart and then moving on!”
In the coming days, Willimon said he hopes General Conference will do no harm to the forward movement of the denomination.
“The active bishops are moving to take unprecedented (at least unprecedented in this last century of our connection) to hold ourselves accountable,” he said. “It’s a great step forward. Always be suspicious of anyone who says, ‘I’m all for measuring the fruits of our ministry but….’”
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.