Did you know that there is a committee in the United Methodist Church called the “Inter-jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee”? If so, you knew more than I did prior to this General Conference about the process of deciding how many Episcopal Areas (and therefore, how many Bishops) there will be in each Jurisdiction. The book of Discipline lays out an highly complex formula for deciding how many Bishops each Jurisdiction should have. One key element in that formula is the number of church members that reside in any given Jurisdiction (the factors in the formula are number of clergy and missional issues). This Committee’s work is especially important for the Wyoming Conference this year, because these are the people who have the power to decide whether or not our Northeast Jurisdiction will in fact (as anticipated) lose at least one Bishop in the next Quadrenium.
Our Annual Conference has long held to the tradition of expecting the first-elected clergy, and the first-elected lay person to serve on the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee. This automatically placed myself and Ray Hamill on this Inter-Jurisdictional Committee, which typically meets only once during the Quadrenium… at General Conference.
As expected, the main item on our agenda (after electing officers) was to respond to a request from the General Commission on Finance and Administration related to the fact that the Northeast Jurisdiction has fallen below the “minimum numbers” required by the Discipline to warrant having ten Episcopal Areas. They were asking our Committee to recommend to the entire General Conference a number of Episcopal Areas for our Jurisdiction. After hearing their presentation, this Committee which was made up of a lay person and a clergy person from every Conference across America, was faced with a decision no one was equipped or wanted to deal with. The complex realities facing this committee were these:
Most of the people sitting in the room were like me, and had all of fifteen minutes of experience serving on the committee, and were now faced with a decision that would affect 1.4 million United Methodists. Most of the more experienced folks in the room had never been faced with this particular challenge before. Our own Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee was split on the recommendation they wanted to make. No Jurisdiction wants to deal with the difficult realities of transitioning to one less Episcopal area. And, some feel there ARE good missional reasons to retain the tenth Bishop in the Northeast… since many of the largest urban areas in America are here, and we all want the church to have a significant presence in these cities. Few others, other than the representatives from Central Penn, New England, Western NY, North-central NY, Troy, and Wyoming Conferences knew what we had been working on over the past two years… that we had taken the initiative to envision a new way of aligning our Conferences that would have missional focus. We were under a time crunch to make the decisions on these matters during our two hour meeting, because all of us had to get back to our Legislative Committee meetings.
After some sharing about the processes we have undertaken over the past two years, and some speeches from the Jurisdictional Committee on the history that had brought us to this point, there was some silence in the room. It was an awkward moment, with everyone expecting someone else to make the fateful motion. Thankfully, as was the case in 2004, Ray Hamill, rose to the occasion!
Over at our table, Ray and I and a member of the NE Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee whispered a word of agreement that it was wrong to expect anyone from another Jurisdiction to make a motion related to our future. Ray stood at the microphone and moved the reduction of Episcopal Areas in our Jurisdiction from ten to nine. As he put it, “It is unfair for us to expect anyone else to make this motion.”
It was an action that created a palpable shift in the room. A gentleman from Florida stood and expressed his stunned gratefulness that Ray had offered this gift to the body. Very quickly (it would have been nice to have more conversation, but the tyranny of the clock weighed heavily upon us) the question was called. And, though the vote was closer than it might have been, because many felt more discussion was called for, the motion was passed to reduce the number of Bishops in our Jurisdiction by one. After the vote, Henry Frueh (from Troy Conference) stood to share that he believes that the vision-driven contingency plan we have been crafting together has the potential to bring about positive growth in our area. After we adjourned, I spent time with some upset delegates from elsewhere in the Jurisdiction to reassure them that the people of Wyoming Conference feel God has been working through this whole process to bring good.
What does all this mean? The recommendation of the Inter-jurisdictional Committee will be brought before the entire General Conference early this week (Monday?) for their consideration. Barring a radical and unexpected turn of events, it seems clear that our Jurisdictional Conference (in Harrisburg in July) will be charged with electing at least one new bishop to make it possible to fill nine Episcopal areas for the 2008-2012 Quadrenium. Please pray for all of us as we move ahead.