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Bishops move toward longer term for president

5/5/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: For related coverage, see UMNS stories #243, 253, 255, 256, 258 and 265-268.

DALLAS (UMNS) - The United Methodist Council of Bishops is taking a two-point approach to strengthening the leadership it provides to the church.

Its members approved May 2 the concept of having a two-year president, a move that would lead to doubling the length of time a bishop holds that office. Advocates of the plan say it would provide better continuity of leadership. In addition, a retired bishop serving in the new position of vice president would handle much of the day-to-day work. An administrative assistant and an ecumenical officer - also a retired bishop - would round out the staff.

The plan will go back to the international council at its fall meeting for final approval.

With that plan in hand, the bishops also voted to ask the denomination's top legislative assembly to approve changing the church's constitution to give them the flexibility of having a four-year president with no duties for overseeing a geographic area. That proposal will go General Conference, which meets next spring in Pittsburgh.

The council's leadership structure was one of many concerns covered by the bishops at their semiannual meeting, April 28-May 2, in the Dallas suburb of Addison.

Though Dallas is a bastion of United Methodism, the church's bishops had never met here as a United Methodist council. However, exactly 35 years ago on April 28, the bishops of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches did meet here as their denominations prepared to merge and form the United Methodist Church, said Bishop William Oden of the Dallas Area.

The 2003 spring gathering ended with worship and the passing of the president's gavel from Bishop Sharon A. Brown Christopher of the Illinois Area to Bishop Ruediger Minor of the Eurasia Area.

Christopher received a standing ovation for her work as president. She thanked her colleagues for their prayer support, which has "invoked a strength and courage I have not known." She encouraged them to provide "nervy" leadership - as opposed to nervous leadership - and, referring to Paul's letter to the Philippians, to stay on track without wavering.

Minor, whose remarks closed the service, thanked Christopher for her witness and "gentle leadership." After reading the gospel story about Jesus calming the storm, Minor likened the church to a fragile boat. "However," he added, "the Lord is with it." He told the bishops not to forget "where the real energy is" when gales arise in the year ahead.

The item drawing most discussion on the meeting's last day was the proposal for changing the council's leadership structure. In recent years, the bishops have been seeking ways to provide more continuity in their leadership. The idea of extending the term of the president has emerged as the key part of that process.

The council suspended its election of new officers while it works on its leadership structure.

After their meeting last fall, the bishops requested the Judicial Council, the denomination's supreme court, to rule on proposed legislation that would provide for "setting aside" an active bishop to serve as president for four years. That bishop would not oversee a geographic region during her or his term.

However, as their spring meeting got under way, the bishops received news that the Judicial Council had ruled the proposed legislation unconstitutional. In its decision, the court went on to describe how the change could be adopted by amending the constitution.

After more work, the bishops approved a plan for extending the president's term to two years. The president would be an active bishop and would continue overseeing a geographic area. In addition to describing the job duties of a president, vice president, secretary and ecumenical officer, the plan calls for establishing a permanent office for the council at a location to be determined.

When the bishops meet next fall, they are expected to consider enabling legislation to implement the new structure.

Right after approving that concept, the bishops voted 21-20 to send legislation to General Conference that would amend the church's constitution and allow for a set-aside bishop to serve as a four-year president.

The narrow margin reflected, at least in part, the opposition of some bishops to the idea of a four-year president. A term of that duration, some argued, would limit the number of people who could hold the office, curtailing diversity in the presidency and the sharing of different styles of leadership.

"I'm not sure this is the model we need to be holding up to the church for leadership in the 21st century," said Bishop Larry Goodpaster of the Alabama-West Florida Area. Other models, emphasizing more shared, conciliar leadership are available, he said.

Bishop Jack Tuell of Des Moines, Wash., explained that the legislation would simply free the council to go to such a structure at some future time if it decided that was appropriate.

During their weeklong meeting, the bishops also:
· Received Bishop Melvin G. Talbert's report as ecumenical officer of the council, which centered on his work advocating for a peaceful resolution to the crisis with Iraq. The bishops gave Talbert a standing ovation.
· Heard reports on items such as the Holistic Strategy for Africa, theological education and leadership, and the provision of a global pension for church clergy.
· Received a report from the council's Korean Reunification Task Force, which is planning a trip to North and South Korea early next year.
· Applauded as Bishop Juan Vera Mendez of Puerto Rico announced that the U.S. Navy was pulling out of the island of Vieques. The bishops had called for such a move and sent a delegation to Vieques in 1999.
· Heard the Rev. R. Randy Day, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, say that providing relief is a "Christian imperative," regardless of the background of the recipients, and that Christians need to understand Islam in order to share their faith and do ministry in Muslim countries.

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