At the January meeting of the Connectional Table of the United Methodist Church, Bishop Bruce Ough sat down with me to answer some questions. Bishop Ough was elected to the United Methodist episcopacy by the North Central Jurisdiction in 2000 and became the leader of both the Dakotas and Minnesota conferences last fall. He also serves as bishop for 18,500 United Methodists in 336 congregations in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Bishop Ough has been appointed by his fellow bishops to serve as the chairman of the Connectional Table for the next four years.
(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?
It’s not always appropriate to associate calls for term limits with lack of trust. Some folks genuinely believe that this would be a healthy thing for lifting up new leadership in the church. Some question the idea that a person who was elected two decades ago would be as in touch with the realities today as someone more current. Such concerns suggest that term episcopacy may be something that has merits as a matter of organizational health alone.
However, having said that, there’s no doubt that there is a lot of mistrust in our system today, and that a lot of this mistrust is directed towards bishops.
When I go to district superintendency committees, evaluations of District Superintendents are almost always favorable. In most annual conferences, you would get much the same response about their bishop. But when you put the whole Council together, people think, we’re not sure we can trust these folks, because we don’t know them and don’t know what their mind is on key church matters. You take a hot-button issue like homosexuality, people cannot trust the Council of Bishops, but in most contexts would trust their own bishop.
I think that that’s a lot of what’s going on with the trust issue.
One of the reasons I’ve heard people could not trust the proposal at the last General Conference to have a “set-aside bishop” was “we could not trust who it would be.” When you push people, they would trust their own bishop, but not another they neither know nor trust.
So relationship is a big part of trust.
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 think that the way you’ve framed the question, John, the only way to answer is to say, that yes, that is one reason people feel they cannot trust bishops or the Council of Bishops. There are people who will judge the effectiveness of a bishop exclusively on whether or not the Book of Discipline is being upheld or things are being taught exactly as they would like them to be taught. As Wesleyan Christians, we’ve always been a big tent. Not everyone has the same level of tolerance for that, so this leads to some mistrust.
As for what should be done about lack of trust of bishops, I think every bishop needs to do more teaching. This would be helpful, and would stimulate conversations within the Council of Bishops on what should we be teaching. We should spend more time in the Council talking about this.
I have found that people jump to conclusions about what I believe because I have not always been as upfront about teaching what I believe in my faith.
The United Methodist Church is really struggling with a sense of identity, seeking an understanding of why do we do what we do. In such situations, folk are always looking for someone to offer them clarity. We heard from Gil Rendle on the need to focus less on how and more on why we do things.
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?
Theology has a very critical role in the vitality of congregations. However, it’s a bit of a leap to say that there’s no room for theological diversity within our denomination. I have seen churches that show all the signs of vitality that are theologically progressive, and other vital congregations that are evangelical. The key is: are people theologically informed and engaged, seeing the connection between theology and what they do.
One of the joys and advantages of being a bishop is that you have the opportunity to work with congregations of a wide variety of perspectives.
Follow United Methodist Director John Lomperis on Twitter: @JohnLomperis