Bishops with the United Methodist Church have proposed postponing the elections of any new bishops in the United States until 2024.
The bishops made the pitch during an open webinar in mid-February, and had the apparent goal of getting their message out to the U.S. General Conference and the jurisdictional conference delegates, who will ultimately decide if the proposal should be enacted.
The ministers pointed to finances as a major concern motivating their proposal, saying that the Episcopal Fund, which finances the work bishops do, is very tight. Considering the bishop’s salary, benefits and pension — as well as travel and office staff costs — each bishop costs the church approximately $285,000. As recently as 2019, some within the church were warning that new revenue was not enough to cover the fund’s obligations and it would be emptied by 2024.
United Methodist News reports:
“The Episcopal Fund has little wiggle room,” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, president of the Council of Bishops, said during the webinar.
Unlike local churches, the Louisiana Conference bishop explained, the fund has little to no programmatic expenses to cut.
“If we want to reduce the Episcopal Fund, the most significant way — and probably the only place to do so — is by reducing personnel, reducing the number of bishops.”
The problem with such a proposal, for some, is that 16 of the 46 active bishops in the U.S. are either in the process of taking on new roles within the church or retiring altogether. UM News tells of how some conferences have responded to the proposal:
“To choose not to elect any bishops is to affirm that God is not calling forth any new people to lead the church this quadrennium,” the Northern Illinois Conference delegation said in an open letter, widely circulated before the webinar. “This is a theological statement we are not prepared to make.”
Another issue that delegates will have to consider about the episcopal election process is that the UMC may soon look significantly different. UM News continues:
Complicating matters is that the denomination appears to be on the verge of splitting after decades of intensifying debate over the status of LGBTQ Christians. The coming General Conference faces multiple separation proposals including the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation — a mediated agreement that, if accepted, would allow churches and conferences to break away to form a new, traditionalist denomination.
Harvey stressed the hold on bishop elections would only be an interim move.
“This was not a forever decision,” she said, “but a for-now decision until we have a better sense of which churches may choose to disaffiliate and who will remain.”
Big questions remain around how many churches, conferences or bishops would leave if the protocol won approval. Under the legislation, it’s possible for a conference to join a new denomination while its bishop remains with The United Methodist Church.
In any case, the General Council on Finance and Administration — the denomination’s finance agency — projects giving to decline significantly in the coming years.
The denomination saw a record amount of giving to general church ministries in December — nearly $39 million. Still, that left the Episcopal Fund with about 86.5% of requested apportionments in 2020 — the lowest collection rate on record for the fund.
“I know we had a great month of December. We praise the Lord for it,” Alabama-West Florida Conference Bishop David Graves said during the webinar. “But we also have to continue to look at the big picture.”
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