A few posts ago I shared about how I desire to be a person helping move the UMC forward with a sense of God's vision rather than just someone in the room when it happens. While I was only an alternate delegate, I was given the opportunity to participate in the election of bishops for about 25 ballots. Here are a few observations of what it was like in the room when it happened.
First of all, when a bishop is elected there is a Spirit and an energy in the room that is very unique. This sense of anticipation and possibility seasoned with our culture's fascination with personalities means that when a bishop was elected the room erupts in applause, cheers and singing. Even without a song leader, the body sings the doxology. Many church leaders cannot carry a tune (I count myself in that), but in a corporate body the common voice is sweet as it comes. It is a beautiful Spirit that feels as close to unity that we come as a Church body. The new Bishop is 'pinned' with the Episcopal seal and then taken away to sign papers and have a press conference. After thirty minutes or so, the new Bishop joins the council of Bishops on the stage and the glow on the Bishop is like that of a newlywed. I hope that everyone has the chance to be in the room when this happens.
At the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) there was great gridlock for the next two elections. Here is what I observed in the room when that happened.
Below is a graph showing the first 18 ballots (excluding Bishop Saenz who was elected on ballot #3). As you can see there is a bit of a horse race and that (now Bishop) Nunn lead the pack for most of it. You may be asking, "if he leads the ballot total for so long, why not just elect him?" There are a few things I heard.
First there is great reservation to elect another Bishop, regardless of qualifications, from the state of Texas. Texas is over-represented in the SCJ council of Bishops. Nunn plateaued in part because he was from Texas. Additionally, there was a concern from others that the SCJ needs greater diversity of people on the council, which might explain why Wilson (Native American) held second and (now Bishop) Farr began to fall off while both Harker and Merrill (women) were introduced late in the voting.
So there are a few things going on, but all in the name of diversity - regional diversity, racial diversity, theological diversity, gender diversity, etc.
A few ballots later, Bishop Nunn was elected, and it was a good thing, but clearly not as exciting as the room was growing tired. As there was still one more Bishop to call, voting continued. There were a few formal exits from individuals and this was the picture after ballot 24:
As you can see, Wilson was slightly ahead of Farr while Dyke was pulling into the high teens. This would be about as close the SCJ would get to break the long tradition of not electing anyone from the Oklahoma Missionary Conference and Native American - Rev. David Wilson. You may be thinking, "if diversity was the issue and all candidates left were non-Texans then why did the SCJ select Bishop Farr over Wilson or Dyke?" I asked this question to other delegates and quickly realized that was a newbie question.
I thought these elections were about selecting those being called into the office of the Bishop. Put another way, I assumed that these ballots were an attempt to answer the question, "Who do we feel is called to the office of Bishop?" What I discovered is that while this question is asked, there is also another unspoken question being asked when casting ballots for Bishops: "where do we put them?"
It makes sense. If you elect a Bishop they have to have a place to serve. However logical this question is, I feel it is out of order when it comes to electing Bishops for at least two reasons.
First, those voting are asked to vote on Bishops, not on placement. Placement is the work of the Episcopacy Committee. Loading unstated questions into a vote contributed the gridlock that we encountered. Those in the know, are asking this question and those who don't know are not asking this question. So there is another layer to why those following on Twitter may not see - you may be like me and assume the vote is about Bishops when in reality is it about Bishops AND placements in one vote.
The second reason this dual question in one vote is out of order is that it undercuts the itinerant nature of our denomination. It is the reason that we have a Board of Ordained Ministry (BOOM) who identifies those who are called and then there is the Bishop and cabinet who puts those pastors into positions. BOOMs do not reject a candidate for ministry because there is not a church "clamoring for that candidate." The BOOM qualifies and then Bishop appoints. Trust me, if the BOOM had to find a church that would have wanted me as their pastor prior to my ordination, I would not have been ordained!
At long last, Bishop Farr was elected (on ballot #35) and the SCJ's work of election came to a close. Those who desired greater ethnic or gender diversity were disappointed that the SCJ council of Bishops are 80% white males, while those who wanted a non-Texan were excited. It was late into the night, and I left the conference at 2:00pm the last day and did not experience the Spirit of the room when Bishop Farr was elected.
The work of the Episcopacy Committee began their assignments and with these announcements it was clear that I am perhaps too naive for this work because I thought the SCJ was a discerning body when in fact it is a deciding body. Here is what I mean by the difference in discernment and decision.
These two actions are not opposed to each other. There is often a decision that comes from discernment to be sure and that is a good thing. This is what I expected at the SCJ Conference. The body comes together with a sense of things, but things are not predetermined prior to arrival. The SCJ at times felt less like a discerning body and more like a deciding body, meaning it felt like we came to the SCJ Conference with our minds made up on who we wanted as a Bishop and even who we wanted to send where. When we enter a process with our minds already made up, we are no longer in the process of discernment - we are in the process of deciding. Again, not a bad thing, I just expected less emphasis on deciding.
There was much more that happened at the SCJ Conference including where conference lines might be redrawn, a report from a volunteer Korean Ministry director who through broken English was so proud to share that one of their own was accepted into the North Texas Conference (he said, "This is BIG news") and even a reaction/response to the election of Bishop Oliveto in the Western Jurisdiction.
There is a sense that one person can do so little even when the voting happens. If the infrastructure of relationship are not there prior to voting then one can feel helpless and unable to help the body. I am proud to serve my conference in the SCJ Conference and now that I have been in the room, I have a better feel for what it takes to make things happen.