Every four years, United Methodists in the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ) elect and assign bishops to the conferences comprising the states of Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana. The process occurs amidst a great deal of prayer and holy discernment, based on a foundation of consultation with the various annual conferences and the bishops themselves.
This process has already begun, as the South Central Jurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy has gathered feedback from conference committees on the episcopacy and bishops, regarding their recommendations for the coming quadrennium. What are the issues facing the conference in the next four years? What projects need to be continued? What kind of leader do you hope to receive (in the case of conferences)? What gifts and learning do you bring as a leader (in the case of bishops)? This process resembles that used for cabinets’ consultation with pastors and SPRCs each year.
Next is the election of new bishops. There will be three elections in our jurisdiction this year, due to the retirement of Bishops Huie and Hayes and the vacancy left by Mr. Dorff, who was also scheduled to retire this year. In addition, two sitting bishops have served in their current places for 12 years and will need to change conferences. For the past several weeks, candidates lifted up and endorsed by conferences and caucuses have been traveling to interviews across the jurisdiction, to share their gifts and vision for the work of bishop.
The South Central Jurisdictional Conference session will be held in Wichita, Kansas, July 13-16. Elections will take place throughout the session, much as they do at the annual conference level. Once all three elections have been completed, the committee will be sent to its deliberations undergirded by the prayers of the whole conference, asking God to lead the group and stating clearly that no decision is pre-determined. The committee’s assignment work allows room for the working of the Holy Spirit, through prayer, honest communication and relationship-building. Their work will be based on trust: trust in God, trust in each other, and trust in the process.
The newly elected bishops will meet with the committee to share their gifts and graces, in anticipation of assignment to one of the conferences. Then the committee will move into discernment, beginning their time together with a devotional, silent prayer, guided prayer, and communion. Charts with each bishop’s service history and stated gifts will be posted on the walls of the meeting room, and the representatives of each area will have time to develop a statement of their needs, hopes and dreams with regard to episcopal leadership.
With all information displayed, and after silent prayer, area groups will work to develop a slate of assignments, matching 10 bishops to 10 areas. Each area will submit one solution, and all 10 solutions will be transcribed to large paper, numbered, and posted on the wall, without revealing which area submitted which solution. All solutions then become the property of the whole group.
Time is given for study, and amendments are allowed. After silent prayer and reflection, each person votes by written ballot for three possible solutions from the 10 posted. The three solutions with the most votes are retained. All others are discarded. There is time for comments and discussion.
After silent prayer and reflection, each person votes for two of the three remaining solutions, and the two with the most votes are retained. More discussion follows, as does further silent prayer. On the final vote, a simple majority makes the assignments. Once the vote is completed, each person is encouraged to voice concerns or cares as necessary. Prayers for healing, nurture, courage, grace and confidentiality are appropriate. Before anyone leaves the room, all papers are gathered for shredding and disposal.
When committee members leave their meeting room and prepare to return to the conference floor, the representatives from each episcopal area will walk directly to greet their corresponding bishop, whether new or returning. The assignments recommended by the committee must then be approved by a vote of the jurisdictional conference. The following morning, on Saturday, most episcopal areas hold a breakfast for their bishop, whether new or returning. After the breakfast, all gather for a service of consecration for the new bishops.
The current Rio Texas representatives on the SCJ committee were actually elected by the former Rio Grande and Southwest Texas Conferences: Edgar Avitia, Cindy Johnson, Jay Brim, and Laura Merrill. On behalf of the whole committee, we covet your prayers for our sitting bishops, the candidates, and the process we will undertake together in Wichita in July.