A Special Report By United Methodist News Service*
7:00 A.M. ET July 23, 2012
United Methodists elected 11 new U.S. bishops and assigned many bishops to new areas during jurisdictional meetings July 18-21.
The jurisdictional conferences gathered simultaneously in five regions of the United States with the primary purpose of electing and assigning bishops. The United Methodist Church has 46 active bishops overseeing more than 7 million U.S. members. The new assignmentstake effect Sept. 1.
In coming months, United Methodists also will elect or re-elect bishops in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. The denomination has 13 million members worldwide.
Besides electing bishops, the conferences focused on other concerns, including placing a bishop on involuntary retirement in the South Central Jurisdiction and providing prayer support for victims and others involved in a movie-theater shooting in the Western Jurisdiction.
Pervading throughout the conferences, however, were themes of spiritual renewal and possibility for the church.
“I believe The United Methodist Church is the greatest church in the Kingdom of God,” newly elected Bishop William McAlilly told the Southeastern Jurisdiction, “and we just need to tell our story and lift the spirits of the people, and we will do the things God is calling us to do in the future.”
Like General Conference, the worldwide legislative gathering that met April 24-May 4 in Tampa, Fla., jurisdictional conferences meet once every four years. Items on every agenda include adopting a conference budget, conducting a memorial service for bishops who have died in the previous four years, and celebrating the careers of retiring bishops.
The number of U.S. bishops in 2013-16 is decreasing by two because of a plan approved by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. The plan included a new formula for setting the number of bishops in a jurisdiction based on church membership.
The Southeastern Jurisdiction began balloting quickly July 18 and finished electing all five of its new bishops before lunch July 19, well ahead of the Northeastern and South Central jurisdictions. The remaining two jurisdictions — North Central and Western — did not have elections, since the retirements of bishops in those areas automatically put them in compliance with the General Conference mandate.
Of the 11 new bishops elected, three are women and eight are men — a 27 percent-to-73 percent gender ratio that is consistent with the groups of bishops elected in 2008 and 2004. One of the new bishops is Korean-American, two are African-American, one is Hispanic and seven are white.
The new bishops have an average age of 54, a slight downtick from the 56.6 average age of the Class of 2008 but close to the 53.5 average age of the bishops elected in 2004. The youngest of the new bishops, Debra Wallace-Padgett, is 46, and the most senior is Young Jin Cho, 65.
Delegates to the Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference, meeting at Lake Junaluska, N.C., were the first to elect bishops. Their first ballot, cast just before the lunch break on July 18, resulted in the election of the Rev. Jonathan Holston, senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Atlanta, North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference.
The final Southeastern bishop elected with a come-from-behind vote was the Rev. Young Jin Cho, superintendent of the Arlington District of the Virginia Annual Conference. He was elected on the 29th ballot.
Cho referred to his late streak to the top of the ballot in his acceptance speech.
“I learned there are many kinds of resurrections,” he said to laughter from the gathering. “By the grace of God, I am what I am. Thank you for your support and affirmation.”
After Holston, the next three Southeastern bishops elected were the Rev. Kenneth H. Carter, superintendent of the Smoky Mountain District in the Western North Carolina Conference since earlier this year; the Rev. William T. McAlilly, superintendent of the Seashore District in the Mississippi Conference since 2006; and the Rev. Debra Wallace-Padgett, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church in Lexington, Ky., since 2004.
Four young adults serving as missionaries with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries shared their stories and encouraged support for the Mission Intern and US-2 programs.
Rachel deBos, 22, said she became a US-2 as the result of “spontaneous calling God placed in my life when I didn’t even know I needed it.”
Northeastern Jurisdiction delegates meeting in Charleston, W. Va., elected the Rev. Sandra Lynn Steiner Ball as the first new Northeastern bishop. Steiner Ball has been director of connectional ministries in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference since 2007.
Her election was followed by that of the Rev. Martin McLee, superintendent of the New England Conference’s Metro Boston Hope District, since 2008; and the Rev. Mark J. Webb, superintendent of the York District of the Susquehanna Annual Conference since 2007.
Delegates also approved a resolution July 19 affirming their commitment to the rights of all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons. “Clergy, lay persons and congregations may feel bound by conscience to offer the ministries and sacraments of the church to all persons on an equal basis and that even though bound to the Book of Discipline, we are also bound by Jesus’s commandment to stand with the marginalized and the oppressed in our midst,” the resolution stated. The measure received approval from 61 percent of the delegates.
Another group, the Northeast Jurisdiction Evangelical Connection, quickly issued a short statement outside of the conference proceedings, stating that the earlier statement “stands in opposition to the doctrine and discipline of The United Methodist Church. A jurisdictional conference does not have the authority to speak in a manner contrary to the General Conference of the denomination. Therefore, we do not believe this statement can be implemented or enforced in any way.”
The church’s Book of Discipline states that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, and it forbids the ordination of self-avowed practicing gay people as clergy and the performance of same-gender union ceremonies.
The South Central Jurisdictional Conference, meeting in Oklahoma City, Okla., began electing bishops on July 19, a day after the Southeastern and Northeastern jurisdictions.
The Rev. Cynthia Fierro Harvey, deputy general secretary of the United Methodist Committee on Relief and a member of the Texas Annual Conference, took a quick lead on the first ballot and was elected four ballots later.
“We haven’t done this in 16 years, right?” said Harvey, referring to the fact that 1996 was the last time the South Central Jurisdiction elected a female bishop. “I’m honored that I would be this person at this point in our life of the church.”
Later that day, the delegates elected the Rev. Gary E. Mueller of the North Texas Conference. Mueller has served as senior pastor of First United Methodist Church, Plano, since 2002.
The Rev. Michael McKee, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Hurst, Texas, since 1997, rounded out the South Central’s trio of new bishops and also was the final chosen in the jurisdictions. McKee was elected shortly after 3 p.m., July 20, becoming the first bishop from the Central Texas Annual Conference.
Getting as much attention as the elections, the disagreement between Bishop W. Earl Bledsoe of North Texas and the jurisdictional episcopacy committee was played out on center stage at the South Central conference. Earlier this year, the committee had asked Bledsoe to retire, citing his administrative performance as a factor. After meeting with the committee, the bishop announced June 1 that he would retire, but then he changed course June 5 and said he would fight for his job. He charged the committee with trying to force him out of office.
In a hearing July 16-17, before the opening of the jurisdictional conference, the committee voted to place Bledsoe on involuntary retirement. On July 19, after hearing from both Bledsoe and committee chair Don House, the jurisdictional delegates affirmed the decision to remove Bledsoe in a 208-45 vote.
Late in the evening of July 20, House announced that Bledsoe would be “placed in a retired position” as of Aug. 31. The decision came after consultation with the jurisdiction’s other bishops. Bledsoe would remain retired even if he appealed the ruling to the denomination’s top court, the Judicial Council, House said. The bishop, 61, was elected to the episcopacy in 2008.
In other action, the delegates approved joining the Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska conferences into the Great Plains Annual Conference, effective Jan. 1, 2014. The new Great Plains Episcopal Area is made up of the Kansas and Nebraska areas, which the South Central College of Bishops directed to merge to meet the General Conference mandate. The delegates also approved joining the Rio Grande and Southwest Texas conferences, which already were in the same episcopal area, by 2016; the conference’s new name will be decided later.
Meeting in Akron, Ohio, the North Central Jurisdictional Conference included an episcopal address presented by Bishop Gregory Palmer (Illinois Area) and Bishop Bruce Ough (West Ohio Area). Palmer described the address as an experiment, and it included a two-hour conversation featuring discussions among the delegates about mission opportunities and video clips of vital ministries around the region.
Palmer thanked the conference for its support for building ministries and for aiming high in moving the mission of the church forward. The church has plenty of stories about things that have not gone well, he said. “Now we are saying we are purposed to aspire to be something more than what we are because we are convicted and convinced that it matters how many people we touch in the name of Jesus Christ, and it matters how many lives are changed, renewed and transformed…” he said.
Ough said signs of vitality can be seen across the jurisdiction, and vital congregations are in every annual conference. “We see the Holy Spirit breaking through everywhere, bringing revival and renewal. Can I get an amen?”
Other highlights of the gathering included a forum hosted by Black Methodists for Church Renewal on the future of the jurisdiction.
The delegates also received a report from members of a transition team tasked with creating a new episcopal area from the Dakotas and Minnesota.
Separately, the jurisdictional Town & Country Association report concluded with a prayer for drought-stricken farmers. "So God we ask, look to our clear skies, dry hills and parched fields then open the heavens and give us rain," said the Rev. Tom Graves.
Though they didn’t elect bishops, delegates to the Western Jurisdiction in San Diego took other significant actions. They combined the Alaska, Pacific Northwest and Oregon-Idaho conferences into the Greater Northwest Area, with the main office in Seattle.
They also voted to rename the Denver Area, comprising the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences, to call it the Mountain Sky Area.
The Alaska Missionary Conference was renamed the Alaska United Methodist Conference. The conference technically is still a missionary conference, but the name change was requested because of the negative connotations associated with the acts of early missionaries toward native people in the area.
News of a shooting at a theater in Aurora, Colo., cast a somber tone in the Western Jurisdictional gathering, as delegates began their session July 20 by praying for those involved. Other jurisdictions also held moments of prayer. Twelve people were killed and 59 injured in the attack, and suspect James Holmes was arrested and charged, according to news reports.
“Precious children of a loving God died violently last night in Aurora, Colo.,” said Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, whose area includes Colorado. “Each life taken is a reminder of God’s amazing and limitless love and grace, and the tragedy of just one person who wanders off into the darkness of fear and hate. And so we pray.
“God, you create a beautiful world. And you give breath to all who breathe. Thank you for every unrepeatable moment of life that we receive. Thank you for the miracle that each moment of every life is. Pick up and carry each one who fell to a gunman’s violence last night. Send your healing mercy to those who were harmed. And shine a light into the darkness where James Holmes wanders lost, and lead him even now on a path of peace.”
Western Jurisdiction delegates adopted a separate statement on the shooting as well as statements on several social issues late July 20. Those included “A Statement of Gospel Obedience,” in which the jurisdiction delegates stated “our belief that The United Methodist Church is in error on the subject of ‘homosexuality’s incompatibility with Christian teaching.’
“We commend to our bishops, clergy, local churches and ministry settings, the challenge to operate as if the statement in (Book of Discipline) Paragraph 161F does not exist, creating a church where all people are truly welcome,” the delegates said. The statement was to be submitted to the jurisdictional bishops, annual conferences and others for discussion and implementation.
Retirement celebrations provided some of the joyful highlights for the jurisdictional gatherings. The send-off for Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the Los Angeles Area, exemplified the celebrations. Actor Pauley Perrette, of the “NCIS” television show, announced in a video message a gift from Hollywood United Methodist Church to clean water projects in Swenson’s honor, and the episcopacy committee announced creation of a scholarship in Swenson’s name at Claremont (Calif.) School of Theology. Swenson will become the next ecumenical officer for the Council of Bishops.
Like Swenson, retiring Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Area was celebrated in the North Central Jurisdictional Conference. Lee also was the closing preacher for her conference, and she urged that the church move from captivity to possibility — from captivity to struggles over issues such as sexuality to possibility for revival and witnessing for Christ.
“It is the things that we do for Christ that will last,” she said, as she began. “Today we go back to the places from which we have come to serve to witness and to be God’s agents of transformation through Christ working within us and through us.”
In her final sermon as an active bishop, she gave an impassioned testimonial to Christ as the living Savior, active in the world today, and she concluded with a blessing.
“May your life be filled with joy,” Lee said, “and may the road you travel always lead you home.”
*This report was written with information from conference communicators and United Methodist News Service staff monitoring the jurisdictional gatherings.