By Lindsay Peyton

Two heads are better than one – especially a duo of competent individuals tasked with an important duty. During the 2023 Annual Conference session, Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey said her role is to help delegates do their best work. To serve the body better, she has enlisted the support of Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton of the New York Conference.  

Bishop Harvey will still preside over every aspect of the upcoming Texas Annual Conference. Bishop Bickerton will be there to offer guidance and consultation, to help monitor the room and help Bishop Harvey listen intently.  

“It’s an important role,” Harvey said. “Now there will be two people working to accomplish what the body wants. This should give assurance to the Conference delegates.” 

She explained that presiding over an Annual Conference requires absolute attention. She likens the process to playing chess – only in three-dimensions. “You have to think and focus on several things all at the same time,” she said.  

Harvey added that the presiding Bishop keeps the momentum of the Annual Conference moving forward – and also tracks the conversation and the complexities that can surround the voting process.  

The Bishop has to remember who was called on last – and who is up next on the floor. “I have to be sure I’m being fair to the whole body,” Harvey said. “Every word you say matters. And most importantly, you have to pay attention to what the delegates are trying to accomplish. It’s all of these things, all at the same time.” 

Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church follow Robert’s Rules of Order, a manual of parliamentary procedure, or the accepted rules, ethics and customs governing meetings of an assembly. Parliamentary procedure allows orderly deliberation – and follows the will of the majority.   

The Robert’s Rules manual was developed by the U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert, who wrote, “The object of Rules of Order is to assist an assembly to accomplish the work for which it was designed.”  

Bishop Harvey and several other members of the Council of Bishops underwent in-depth training in parliamentary procedure in preparation for the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference – working with an experienced parliamentarian. “He was a professional parliamentarian,” she said. “I presided during some of the most contentious deliberations. The parliamentarian sat by my side and helped with the process.” 

Harvey explained that during the General Conference, the presiding Bishops are selected by the Committee on Presiding Officers, and each presiding bishop typically selects two bishops as support. 

In the 2019 Special Session, there was a shift, and the process was more formalized, and the bishops were placed in triads. When Bishop Harvey presided, she was supported by Bishop Bickerton and Bishop Patrick Streiff, the Resident Bishop of the Central and Southern Europe Area.   

Working with the two other Bishops as well as the Parliamentarian was eye-opening, Bishop Harvey explained. “You have more confidence, because you have more people to help you monitor the room and help the delegates do their best work,” she said.  

After the General Conference, the idea of having an extra set of eyes and ears, as well as someone to help with Robert’s Rules, was repeated at a few Annual Conferences. In 2022, Bishop Harvey adopted the system when she presided over the Louisiana Conference.  

Harvey invited Bishop Tracy Smith Malone of the East Ohio Conference in the North Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church to join her. “Bishop Malone preached and helped me process some of the items on our agenda,” Harvey recalled. “She sat with me through some of the sessions and acted as a guide. She had to leave prior to the end of the conference but would check in each day. It made all the difference in the world.” 

A similar model was followed last year during the Jurisdictional Conference in the fall. Retired Bishop D. Max Whitfield served as a support for all of the Bishops. “That provided consistency, by having him there the whole time.” Harvey recalled. “He knew what happened all along, and it was really helpful.” 

Having the additional support will not only benefit the Bishop but also the entire assembled body at the Annual Conference. In light of current changes in the church, Harvey added, running the sessions as effectively as possible is essential.  

“We’re all in new territory,” she said. “Having someone alongside me will help me be more present to the Conference. It’s as much for the delegates as the Bishop.” 

Bishops Harvey and Bickerton have worked together several times in the past, including on the Nothing But Nets campaign that provided mosquito nets in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 2000s. They also had the opportunity of working together while Bishop Harvey served as the president of the Council of Bishops 2020 through 2022, and Bishop Bickerton was the president-designate.  

The Bishops have both served together on many important matters in the United Methodist Church, Harvey explained. “We both love the United Methodist Church and have great love and respect for each other. We both fully believe that our role as presiding bishops is to help the delegates do their best work,” she said. “Tell me what you want to accomplish. Let me help you get there.”