At the January meeting of the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church, Bishop James Swanson sat down with me to answer some questions. Bishop Swanson was elected to the United Methodist episcopacy by the Southeastern Jurisdiction in 2004 and became the leader of Mississippi United Methodists last fall. He currently serves as the president of the denomination’s General Commission on United Methodist Men, and is therefore a member of the Connectional Table.
(This interview has 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?
I don’t think it’s just a matter of mistrust of bishops. There are members of our society who mistrust anyone in a position of authority. People think there is no authority beyond themselves. We see that with politicians, school administrators, etc.
We as bishops need to spend more time building relationships with our own people.
People generally hate Congress, but have a more positive view of their own congressperson. I would be interested to see a survey that tracks how United Methodists view the Council of Bishops and their own bishop.
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?
I was recently in a meeting with some very knowledgeable laypeople. Their big problem is that bishops don’t speak clearly. For example, when the Council of Bishops releases a statement, they cannot understand it, because it includes too many different perspectives as it relates to a particular issue. But they can get a clearer perspective from an individual bishop. I would say to those who lack trust in bishops to pray for us and our commitment to service in the will of God.
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?
Gil Rendle’s statement about theology not mattering was about the Call To Action Report and that report revealed that churches of differing theological positions are experiencing growth. So if growth is our end product then theology does not matter.
I think theology plays a very important role. The people you preach to have to know what you really believe, who you trust, and the base of your faith. People want to hear that loud and clear.
One’s ministry flows out of what he or she believes about God.
Follow United Methodist Director John Lomperis on Twitter: @JohnLomperis