Episcopacy Study

Executive Summary from the Task Force to Study the Episcopacy

We recognized early on the enormity of the task of doing a study of “all aspects of the episcopacy” as being well beyond the task force’s makeup as constituted and the money and time that had been set aside to carry out such a task. We were also mindful that previous General Conferences have been reluctant to approve Study Reports that offered far-reaching and/or monumental changes. Therefore, we are offering a report that we believe to be thoughtfully measured and with attainable, incremental changes that move us forward in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Theology of the Episcopacy

We found ourselves pulled by our commitment to the mission of the church, pulled even to the point of seeing the need to enlarge the missional visions with which we charge our bishops to lead. And we were pushed, as it were, by our explorations of a theology for the episcopal office.

With an eye to the role that bishops play in their presidential roles in conferences, in leadership in boards and agencies, and in their exercise of the teaching office through the Council, we recommended an addition to the mission statement that recalls that with which American Methodism began (“to reform the continent and spread scriptural holiness over these lands”):

¶ 120 The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.

Similarly, our theological explorations led us to a refinement of the Discipline’s delineation of the episcopal office (¶ 404) which begins by positing their leadership in relation to that of Christ.

We offer further notes towards a theology of the office which begin also with exploration of the bishop’s embodiment of Christ’s offices of prophet, priest and king, each of them understood as a form of servant leadership. In quadrilateral fashion we then pursued the ways in which itinerant general superintendency has lived out in our context a Biblically faithful and apostolic form of leadership.

The Nature of the Episcopacy

Common concerns heard in listening sessions with the jurisdictional bishops, jurisdictional committees on episcopacy and constituent groups included processes for evaluation of bishops, early retirement without stigma and mandatory retirement prior to age 70. In order to support and strengthen episcopal leadership, the task force recommends a more consistent and robust method of evaluation. A recommendation for a vocational retirement allows bishops to choose, prior to mandatory retirement age, the opportunity to serve in ministry in other fields, unimpeded by rules of retirement and benefits. As full Social Security retirement age standards are rising in the U.S., a recommendation is made to raise the mandatory retirement age to 72, depending on the bishop’s date of birth.

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The Episcopacy and Renewal of the Connection

Throughout its work, as our report will show, the Task Force concerned itself with the leadership role of bishops in reforming and renewing our Connection, with the future of the episcopal office and the connection, with changes in structures and processes that would continue to bring strong leadership to the office, and specifically with the bishop’s responsibility to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline of the church. We recommend that, should General Conference establish a Committee on Faith and Order as recommended by the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns, that among its first orders of theological enquiry be a study of the mission, identity and nature of The United Methodist Church including the implications for the episcopacy.

Central Conference Episcopacy

Episcopacy in the Central Conferences was initially considered, but the Task Force soon realized that it was not adequately constituted and resourced to deal with the wide cultural, economic and other variations of the episcopacy within Africa, within Europe and in the Philippines—unlike the US jurisdictions, where episcopacy is more homogeneous. We do recommend that the General Commission on Central Conference Affairs be strengthened to study and make its own recommendations regarding episcopacy in the Central Conferences.


We heard concern about the workload of bishops repeatedly voiced, especially as a factor in precipitating early retirements. Determining workload across jurisdictions is not easy. A request was sent out to the Council of Bishops soliciting input or ideas.

The number of clergy clearly seems to be the primary time and energy factor in most bishops’ experience rather than number of churches or membership, and so a formula was considered based on the ratio of the number of clergy per bishop. Since geography—the terrain overseen—is also a critical factor in terms of keeping the connectional fabric strong, a second formula took expanse into account. It is also clear that having multiple Annual Conferences places significant workload and stress on the bishop. And missional perspectives varied widely. Changes based on workload alone were considered but ultimately rejected.

What we recommended is that, because of the inordinate drain that supervision and litigation now placed on bishops, General Conference charge GBHEM, the Legal Department of GCFA and the Council of Bishops with review of and possibly amendment of ¶ 362 so as to provide for greater flexibility in trial administration and to permit appropriate delegation of responsibilities and authority to chancellors and District Superintendents.

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Financial Implications and the Resulting Formula for the Reduction in the Number of Bishops in Jurisdictions

We have reluctantly recommended the adoption of a new formula for Episcopal areas that will lead to the reduction of four Areas in 2012. We do this in response to the continued, dramatic growth of the Episcopal Fund in the current and new quadrennium. The Episcopal Fund grew 27.7% in the 2005-08 quadrennium, and is projected to grow 13.03% in 2009–2012; this growth came at a time when the entire budget increased 12.2% in 2005–2008 and is projected to increase 4.8% in 2009–2012. The Task Force would also remind the church that the number of retired Bishops has increased significantly, creating unfunded costs that the church will need to meet in the future.

This recommendation is made in recognition of other reductions that have taken place throughout our church: there have been continual decreases in the funding of all boards and agencies. From 1974 to 2005, there was a 15% decrease in the number of Annual Conferences, and a 10% decrease in the number of districts and district superintendents. We have sought to adjust the number of Episcopal areas to be in line with these realities.

The 2012 General Conference timetable for the reduction in the number of bishops will allow the jurisdictions time to consider different options, and to do what makes the most sense in that context. It also gives jurisdictions time for conversation with other jurisdictions.

Some Areas will increase in geographic size. Episcopal leadership will have time to get their work done in non-traditional ways, despite geographic constraints.

We were addressing the fundamental change in the United Methodist Church. We do not have the numbers of members or contributors that we had twenty-five years ago and have to learn to live within the constraints of that reality.

Our hope is that this timetable and these reductions will help keep the Episcopal Fund in a financially solvent position in future years. We also hope that these reductions will serve as a “wake up” for our denomination and lead it toward revitalization of its mission and ministry.

Read the complete text of the report that the Task Force to Study the Episcopacy will present at General Conference. Get the complete Episcopacy Report.

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