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UMC Pastoral Accountability: What About Bishops?

United Methodist Insight led me to Jeremy Smith’s article, Defeating the Dark Side of Church Metrics. I recommend the second link because of comments. Since one commenter talks about people who oppose accountability but who receive their paycheck from the church, let me note that I am a United Methodist layman, and I do not receive support from the church. I put those little pieces of paper in the offering plate, not vice-versa. (Read the comments to Jeremy’s post if you don’t get this!)

I have been very interested in this debate because I believe strongly in accountability and at the same time don’t see conference dashboards providing the right sort of accountability. I have encountered United Methodist pastors that I thought shouldn’t be shepherding actual sheep, much less church-member-sheep. There are a few poor excuses for pastors out there. But at the same time there are churches that are more difficult to manage than others. (Out of This World describes one. Full disclosure – my company publishes that book.) There are also large numbers of wonderful pastors, trying to fulfill their call, and being hampered by a dying (perhaps suicidal?) church.

So the first thing I noticed was that the metrics being used are not properly weighted. My initial impression is that our bishops are numerically challenged. But that’s not really the problem. They have the numbers. What they don’t have is enough context for the numbers. And while one can hope that when the cabinet discusses appointments, such context will be provided by people who are in the field, when one reads a conference dashboard—say North Alabama—one doesn’t have that context. So the public face of the metrics is without adequate context, in my view.

But I’m just a Methodist layman. Jeremy Smith has looked into this and is suggesting we change the way we do metrics. Much of what he suggests resonates with me. I have to confess that I’m not connectional enough to care whether a particular local church is giving to United Methodist or non-UM projects for the most part. I have a tendency to call myself “a member of a United Methodist congregation” more often than I call myself United Methodist. But in general, he’s talking about the right things, and the charts he uses (see his post for sources) can be helpful in looking at those things.

But ultimately I don’t think any set of numbers will do the job adequately. Numbers can be helpful, but in the end someone has to take responsibility, prayerfully discern the situation in each ministry situation, and make a call. I’d think the person to take that responsibility in our polity would be a bishop. That’s unfortunate, in a way, as bishops supervise too many churches to really understand all their local church communities, no matter how well one designs and then completes charts and reports. It would be better for such responsibility to fall on someone at the district superintendent level, but I don’t want to beat up on DS’s too much, as I perceive their job to involve taking all the blame, getting none of the credit, and having no actual authority to do anything about it. I exaggerate, but the DS does have to work largely by exhorting pastors below and bishops above.

Bishops are elected for life, and we should imagine they are elected because their fellow pastors discern in them special gifts and a special call from God. But is there any point at which a person should no longer be called to account? I want to say there is no such point, but in our clumsy Methodist structure, I’m not sure if we’ve given bishops the authority to accomplish what they need to either. I’m no Book of Discipline expert, but I base this on observation.

I would say the same thing for every level of the church.

1) Provide responsibility with adequate authority to fulfill it

2) Place those with the responsibility to hold one accountable in a position to evaluate and act

3) Hold everyone accountable according to the authority given.

Incidentally, this leaves us with the power vacuum at the top of the United Methodist Church. There is nobody to hold everyone from bishops to boards and agencies accountable. The members of the church at large should do this, but the authority structure is so bizarre that few Methodists know who is accountable for what. We obviously fear strong executive power, but the advantage to such power would be that the membership could understand that if the agencies don’t do what the general conference votes, there is one person, or one small group, who should be held accountable for failing in their task.

Or—and it matters little to me, so long as we do one or the other—we could just become congregational and admit we have little control over what’s happening, and that such control as we do have is generally hampering the gospel rather than helping.

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