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Who gets elected a United Methodist bishop?


A UMNS News Feature By Tom McAnally*

Thirteen names will be added this fall to a list of 519 United Methodist bishops in the church's Book of Discipline.

The list of the men and women who have occupied the denomination's top office since 1784 appears in the front of the book, which is revised every four years by the General Conference. The top legislative body met May 2-12 in Cleveland. U.S. bishops will be elected at five simultaneous jurisdictional conferences July 12-15.

The current list of bishops begins with Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, elected in 1784 when American Methodism was formally organized in Baltimore, and ends with Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda, an African bishop elected in 1996. The combined surnames of the first two American bishops are familiar to modern-day United Methodists through the denomination's nationwide chain of Cokesbury bookstores.

John Wesley, a clergyman in the Church of England, is considered the founder of the Methodist movement, but he never left that denomination and was not pleased when American Methodists decided to elect bishops. British Methodism to this day does not have bishops.

United Methodist bishops in the United States are elected for life but are assigned to geographic areas of service for four-year terms. Normally, they serve in one area no more than two terms but may continue for a third term under special circumstances.

The order of names in the Book of Discipline's list of bishops is determined not only by the day they are elected but the hour. It is possible, with five simultaneous conferences, that bishops can be elected within minutes of each other. Officials keep careful records to make sure the first elected is the first listed.

Early bishops were all white and all male. In 1858, the name of the first African American appears, that of missionary Bishop Francis Burns, assigned to Liberia. The first African-American bishops to serve in the United States didn't make the list until 1920, when Robert E. Jones and Matthew W. Clair Sr. were elected.

The first female bishop was Marjorie Swank Matthews, elected by the North Central Jurisdiction in 1980. Since then, 10 more women have been elected, including a black woman, Leontine T.C. Kelly. The list of U.S. bishops has yet to include a Native American, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by organizations working for diversity among the church's leadership.

Who gets elected bishop? There's no simple answer to that question. In his book, Chosen to be Consecrated: The Bishops of the Methodist Church, 1784-1968, the late Bishop Roy Short observed: "The truth of the matter is that were all the facts known, it would be found that there is a different story behind almost every episcopal election and that several factors have entered into each picture."

Bishops of the Methodist Church were elected at general conferences until the union of three Methodist groups in 1939. The Methodist Church in the United States then moved the election of bishops to five geographic jurisdictions and one racial (black) jurisdiction.

In 1968, the Methodist Church joined with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the United Methodist Church. The black Central Jurisdiction was eliminated as a condition of union, but the practice of electing bishops in the five geographic jurisdictions was continued.

Of the bishops who will be elected in July, four will be in the South Central Jurisdiction, three in North Central, three in Southeastern, two in Western and one in Northeastern.

With the shift from national to jurisdictional elections, fewer individuals who served in churchwide (general) agencies were elected, Short noted in his book. Of the 44 candidates identified by the end of May for this year's elections, 19 are pastors, 18 are district superintendents, two are conference staff members, two are general agency staff members and three are seminary faculty members.

Craig This, staff member of the research office of the General Council on Ministries in Dayton, Ohio, has tabulated election results since 1972 showing that the denomination has elected 109 bishops, consisting of 98 males and 11 females. In terms of racial or ethnic diversity, that number included 19 African Americans, three Asian Americans and two Hispanic Americans.

Median age of those elected is 54, with the oldest at the time of election being 68 and the youngest 43. A mandatory retirement age was not in effect until the 1980 jurisdictional conferences.

Of the 109 bishops elected since 1972, 58 were pastors, 23 were district superintendents, seven were conference council on ministries directors and seven were general agency staff members. In addition, four were seminary faculty members, four were seminary presidents, four were assistants to bishops, one was a university president and one was an annual conference staff member.

GCOM's This has compiled statistics for each of the jurisdictional elections in the United States since 1972:

North Central Jurisdiction
21 elected (17 males, 4 females).
7 pastors, 4 district superintendents, 2 council directors, 3 general agency staff, 1 seminary faculty member, 1 seminary president, 3 assistants to bishops.
17 European Americans, 4 African Americans.
Average age: 52.9.
NOTE: The best ratio in electing females.

Northeastern Jurisdiction
18 elected (16 males, 2 females).
8 pastors, 5 district superintendents, 2 council directors, 1 council staff, 1 general agency staff member, 1 seminary faculty member.
11 European Americans, 6 African Americans, 1 Asian American.
Average age: 51.5.
NOTE: No seminary presidents despite presence of three seminaries within the bounds of the jurisdiction.

South Central Jurisdiction
26 elected (24 males, 2 females).
16 pastors, 5 district superintendents, 1 council director, 1 general agency staff member, 2 seminary presidents 1 university president.
22 European Americans, 3 African Americans, 1 Hispanic American.
Average age: 55.

Southeastern Jurisdiction
33 elected (32 males, 1 female).
23 pastors, 7 district superintendents, 1 council director, 1 seminary faculty member, 1 seminary president.
29 European Americans, 4 African Americans.
Average age: 56.
NOTE: First and only woman elected in 1996. No general agency staff elected.

Western Jurisdiction
11 elected (9 males, 2 females).
4 pastors, 2 district superintendents, 1 council director 2 general agency staff members, 1 seminary faculty member, 1 assistant to a bishop.
6 European Americans, 2 Asian Americans, 1 Hispanic American, 2 African Americans.
Average age: 51.
NOTE: Most diverse racially.

The United Methodist Book of Discipline (Para.407.2a) states that jurisdictions "shall give due consideration to the inclusiveness of The United Methodist Church with respect to sex, race and national origin."

After doing his research, This agreed with Short. "The statistics, unfortunately, do not tell the whole story," he concluded. "There is more to each election than appears on the surface. There is no single answer to who gets elected bishop."

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*McAnally is director of United Methodist News Service, the church's official news agency with offices in Nashville, Washington and New York.

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