Bishop Jim Dorff is part of the United Methodist Church. (Photo credit: United Methodist News Service)
At the January meeting of the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Jim Dorff took a moment with me to answer some questions. Bishop Dorff was elected to the United Methodist episcopacy by the South Central Jurisdiction in 2008 and last fall became the leader of the San Antonio Episcopal Area (comprising both Southwest Texas and the Spanish-speaking Rio Grande Conference). He currently serves as the president of the denomination’s General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), and is therefore a member of the Connectional Table.
(This interview had been edited for clarity)
There’s been a lot of talk about a widespread lack of trust in our denomination. A big point of opposition to the IOT plan was the widespread agreement that it would greatly increase episcopal power. One of your colleagues, now retired Bishop Will Willimon, colorfully described the 2012 General Conference as “episcophobic.” This last General Conference saw the Renewal and Reform Coalition, General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) chief Jim Winkler, and a majority of delegates ultimately support some form of term limits for US bishops.
Why do you think there is this apparent mistrust of US bishops? And what do you think should be done about it?
The perceived mistrust is more organic than individualized. In most instances, there is openness to being in relationship and partnership with individual bishops. But across the U.S. church, there are real questions: are we really in partnership with each other, or is one entity in the church seeking to dictate to another? What are our roles? Who is in charge?
These concerns come out in lots of different ways. One way is concern about the power and authority of bishops.
The way forward is to continue the conversations across the church about how do we most effectively make disciples and how do we truly develop partnerships with others in the church. I believe that this is the only way we are going to begin to see the effectiveness that we all want.
What would you say to those who say that the lack of trust in bishops stems from our bishops’ not consistently ensuring that the Discipline is upheld in our denomination, not adequately defending and teaching orthodox Wesleyan theology, and not being seen as graciously and courageously defending Christian values and truth even when they conflict with some parts of secular liberal American culture?
There will often be disagreement regarding all kinds of issues across the church. This includes disagreements among bishops. I think vigorous dialogue with individual bishops about whatever opinions they may have or express is always appropriate and healthy. Furthermore, it is important for each part of the church to hold the other accountable, including Bishops. This can be done in several different ways, including the formal Disciplinary processes. That leads to the development of trust, but it does not always lead to agreement. And that’s why I believe the conversations need to continue.
Rev. Gil Rendle shared one perspective at this Connectional Table meeting. But what role do you think that the theology which pastors and laity in congregations adopt has in the reported lack of congregational vitality? And what role do you think that theology can and should play in revitalizing congregations?
Anything we do in any part of the church has to be grounded in and consistent with biblical theology and our Wesleyan heritage. Everything else in the church flows from a biblical and Wesleyan theological perspective. Our vitality comes from biblical and spiritual engagement, which allows the Holy Spirit to flow through the church. Everything else amounts to strategies to proclaim and move the Gospel forward.