Three bishops to be elected next week
An episcopal candidate is announced at the 2016 South Central Jurisdictional Conference.
By Lindsay Peyton
Three new bishops will be elected by delegates of the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church when it meets next month in Houston. In addition, the Jurisdictional Conference will determine where current bishops, along with those newly elected, will be assigned.
The event will be held Wednesday, Nov. 2 through Saturday, Nov. 5 at Houston FUMC’s Westchase Campus, 3663 Westcenter Drive in Houston, 77042. New bishops will be consecrated during a worship service at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.
There are currently 46 bishops in the U.S. in five jurisdictions. The Texas Annual Conference (TAC) is located in the South Central Jurisdiction, which also includes Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oklahoma Indian Missionary, Great Plains (Kansas and Nebraska), Central Texas, North Texas, Northwest Texas, and Rio Texas.
Assignments of all active bishops are recommended by a Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy, composed of leaders – lay and clergy – from each conference. The Committee is elected at the previous jurisdictional conference and works for four years with bishops to provide oversight for their work.
TAC delegates attending the November jurisdictional conferences were elected at their Annual Conference in 2019 and include heads of the delegation Don House of A&M UMC in College Station and Rev. Dr. Tom Pace, Senior Pastor of St. Luke’s UMC in Houston.
House explained that there are currently eight endorsed candidates for the episcopacy in the South Central Jurisdiction. The delegation has been meeting for months and have recently completed interviewing the endorsed candidates.
“I’m impressed with the quality of candidates in this pool,” he said. “They feel called to this. We’ve got some really good people who have decided to run, and that is a blessing.”
Pace agreed. “There are some strong candidates, and they are from diverse backgrounds,” he said.
He explained that incoming bishops will face unique challenges. “There will be a real responsibility to deal with healing and pain,” he said.
The bishops might have to address changes to budgets or difficulty with appointments. At the same time, Pace said, these individuals will have to be forward-thinking.
“Some of the usual strategies that we’ve pursued for decades will no longer work,” he said. “There is an opportunity to try some new things and lean into ways that may be more effective in making disciples.”
Pace said that the interviews were conducted by Zoom. “We’ve had some robust conversations,” he said. “And delegates have followed up with individuals to ask more questions.”
Pace added that there will be time during the Jurisdictional Conference for in-person interviews.
House explained a 50 percent plus one vote is required for an election. There may be as many as fifteen ballots taken to elect three bishops. The ballots are spread out throughout the Jurisdictional Conference, mixed in with reports and other business.
Last-minute changes to the ballot are possible, Pace added. “Every once in a while, someone who is not declared is lifted up and elected,” he said.
Pace said that there will also be reports made and resolutions that go before the Jurisdictional Conference. Often the event will gauge support of initiatives that will go before the General Conference.
Once the final ballots are counted, and all the business of the Conference completed, the Committee on Episcopacy meets in a separate room to assign all of the bishops, both new and returning, to their episcopal areas.
The strengths of the bishops are weighed against the leadership needs of the Annual Conferences. House compared the process to the appointment process for pastors to serve a congregation.
Bishop Bob Hayes preaching at the 2016 South Central Jurisdictional Conference.
In total, eight bishops will be assigned to 12 annual conferences. House explained that there had been only two bishops assigned to more than one annual conference: Bishop Bledsoe to New Mexico and Northwest Texas, and Bishop Nunn to Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference. Today, Bishop Saenz has two annual conferences, Bishop Schnase has two annual conferences, and Bishop Nunn has three annual conferences—all due to retirements. “One complication is that we don’t have enough Bishops to serve all of our previously defined Episcopal areas,” he said.
Five South Central Jurisdiction bishops are recently retired or have requested retirement, including Bishop Scott J. Jones from the Texas Annual Conference, Bishop Gary Mueller from the Arkansas Conference, Bishop Lowry from Central Texas, Bishop Bledsoe from New Mexico and Northwest Texas, and Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference.
Returning Bishop James Nunn currently has three areas – the Oklahoma Conference, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, and Northwest Texas.
House said that assigning Bishops to two additional sets of Annual Conferences was once considered a temporary measure. The system, however, may become more permanent.
Pace explained that the dual coverage areas are yet to be determined. Terms for bishops begin on Jan. 1.
Some of the continuing bishops may remain at their current post, House said.
Texas seeks a seasoned bishop
Regardless, the TAC will have a new bishop next year. In the past, House explained, the TAC sought a seasoned Bishop, due to the size and complexity of the territory. Lately, however, there have been calls for a new bishop who does not have established methods and practices in place.
The Jurisdictional Conference will meet again in July 2024 after the next General Conference. Pace explained that the Judicial Council will decide if the current delegations will represent their Annual Conferences or if that will change.
Before the next Jurisdictional Conference, the Committee will determine how many bishops are needed and how many plan to retire. One chief cause of concern, House explained, is financial.
Current and retired bishops are all paid out of an Episcopal Fund. COVID-19 has placed a strain on that account.
Another issue is the number of churches in each conference, which could change in the midst of disaffiliation. “The formula to determine the number of bishops to serve a jurisdiction is based on membership,” House said.
If an Annual Conference loses a large number of churches, there may be a need to draw new boundaries. That matter will be explored in 2024, House said.
Pace said that the Committee of Annual Conference Boundaries will address that issue. Representing the TAC are lay leader Stacie Hawkins and District Superintendent Dr. Vincent Harris from the South District.
In the future, Annual Conferences may decide to reduce the number of districts. “But when an Annual Conference reduces the number of districts, it loses the strength of the connection,” House cautioned.
He explained that the result can be a lack of apportionments paid. Ultimately, deciding how to navigate these issues will be key questions in the coming year. “There are going to be some difficult days ahead,” House said.
Still, he said, there is a silver lining. “With disaffiliation, we have been living in a denomination with differences of opinion and rather significant debates,” he said. “In the future, we may be more unified than we were before, and that creates an opportunity for growth.”
House continued, “For the Texas Annual Conference, this could start becoming the best of our days. We’ve lived through COVID and disaffiliation. There may be a resurgence ahead.”