By Lindsay Peyton
On the final day of the Texas Annual Conference, Bishop Scott Jones announced that he will remain at the helm of the organization. A standing ovation ensued, and applause filled the room.
“I have a lot more that I intend to do for Christ,” he said.
The decision was made possible by the ruling by the United Methodist Church’s top court, the Judicial Council, that set Jan. 1, 2023, as the date when U.S. bishops facing mandatory retirement must step down.
The ruling came after the Council of Bishops asked for clarification of Judicial Council Decision 1445, which was signed into action on May 20.
Typically, Jurisdictional Conferences meet to elect bishops in mid-July every four years following the General Conference, the UMC’s top law-making assembly. The pandemic, however, interrupted that schedule.
As a result of COVID, the General Conference has been postponed three times. The event, which was originally slated for 2020, is now scheduled for 2024.
A number of U.S. bishops, who planned to retire during the 2020 General Conference, had to postpone their retirements. As the years stretched on, mandated retirement ages for bishops approached.
In addition, some bishops stepped down to take new roles. So far, 13 U.S. bishops have signed up for expanded assignments and five bishops stayed on, who planned on retiring earlier.
To address delayed elections, the Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to allow holding Jurisdictional Conferences to rectify the situation. The Judicial Council ruled that bishops can call Jurisdictional Conferences for a “limited purpose” of continuing the “episcopacy in the United Methodist Church.” This meant that elections could be held to meet the UMC mandate that bishops provide continuing supervision.
Judicial Council Decision 1445 allowed the Council of Bishops to call jurisdictional conferences to elect new leaders this year. The election will be held during regular sessions of the Jurisdiction Conferences, scheduled on Nov. 2 through Nov. 5.
At that time, further questions arose regarding the timeline of retirement.
For instance, Bishop Jones turned 68 last month, reaching the mandatory age of retirement. According to the Book of Discipline, he would retire on Aug. 31 and a new bishop would begin to serve the TAC on Jan. 1, 2023.
The Council of Bishops asked the Judicial Council to consider what would happen between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31 – and to outline where the newly elected bishops and the retired bishops would serve in the interim.
The Judicial Council returned with Memorandum 1446 on June 1 – which modified Decision 1445.
According to Memorandum 1446, the current situation is unprecedented and requires changes in the usual disciplinary provisions. In fact, the Judicial Council stated that the dates in the Discipline “cannot be applied without disrupting the constitutionally mandated episcopal supervision for the Church.”
The court instead made Jan. 1, 2023 the effective date of assignment for newly elected bishops, as well as retirement for bishops who reached their 68 birthday on or before July 1, 2020. This decision only affects bishops who planned to retire in 2020. Bishops who turned 68 after 2020 will serve until 2024.
In addition, Memorandum 1446 states that jurisdictional conferences may move forward with their elections, assignments, consecration and retirement of bishops. New bishops will begin their assignment two months after the jurisdictional conferences.
For Bishop Jones, who was preparing to retire early, either on Dec. 31, 2022, or on Aug. 31, 2022, but will now be able to serve until Aug. 31, 2024, the news was welcomed. “I have loved serving the TAC, and I was grieved that my time was coming to an end,” he said.
He believes the timing will benefit the TAC. “Changing bishops matters to an Annual Conference,” he said.
There are currently 46 bishops in the U.S. – with 10 in the South Central Jurisdiction, where the TAC is located.
The UMC has five jurisdictions – and each U.S. Annual Conference elects delegates to both General Conference and jurisdictional conferences. Half of the delegates are laity and half are clergy.
The TAC delegates attending the November jurisdictional conferences were elected in 2019, Bishop Jones explained. “However, there are some openings in the delegation we expect to fill by election during the special session of the Annual Conference in the fall,” he said. “There are openings because of resignations and changes in status.”
He explained that in each jurisdiction, a committee on episcopacy is composed of one clergy and one lay person per Annual Conference and charged with reviewing the bishops’ work. In the TAC, that committee includes Don House and Rev. Chappell Temple.