One of the questions I've heard lately as a district superintendent is, "Will Oklahoma receive a new bishop in January and how does this process happen?"
|The UMC doesn't have quite the|
fanfare for the election of our bishops
as say when a new pope is selected
but it is important to us nonetheless!
Normally, United Methodists gather every four years at a jurisdictional conference to elect bishops to lead. They are then appointed to serve at one (or more) of the annual conferences that make up the jurisdiction. We have five jurisdictions in the United States and Oklahoma resides in the South Central Jurisdiction (SCJ). Our jurisdiction includes the annual conferences from Nebraska and Kansas (Great Plains), Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma (Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conferences), New Mexico (which includes a sliver of Arizona) and Texas (Northwest Texas, Central Texas, North Texas, Rio Texas and Texas - 5 different annual conferences within this state - 6 if you include the OIMC churches in Texas).
The bishops are elected from elders within their jurisdictional area (there are exceptions where elders have been elected from areas outside the jurisdiction but this is rare and I don't believe the SCJ has ever done this). Bishops are itinerant just like elders and are placed by the jurisdiction in a conference that is open (whose bishop is either retiring or moving). Their initial placement is almost always in a conference different from the one out of which they are elected. So, if I were elected bishop, since I come from the Oklahoma Conference, I would likely be placed in one of the other conferences mentioned above. The advantage of the jurisdiction is that they share a lot of similarities theologically, philosophically, politically and culturally. It is thought that a person elected from another annual conference in this geographic area could more easily acculturate to the conference in which they are placed to lead (as opposed to someone else from outside this area).
Within the Oklahoma Conference, there has been some anxiety circulated that our current episcopal leader, Bishop Nunn, will either retire or be moved at the end of this year, following the called Jurisdictional Conference in early November.
Bishop Nunn put to rest any fears in his pastoral letter to the conference that he would retire at the end of this year.
Interestingly enough, Bishop Nunn serves the only three-point charge in the South Central Jurisdiction with Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Indian Missionary (OIMC) and the Northwest Texas conferences. The difficulty of this assignment is that each of these conferences are in a different place regarding disaffiliation. The OIMC may have the fewest disaffiliations in the United States. The Oklahoma Conference may end up with around ten percent of its churches disaffiliating (my current guesstimate) and the Northwest Texas Conference may have the most disaffiliations by percentage in the US. So, Bishop Nunn must be aware of the context to which he is speaking because of the differing expectations of each setting.
While we have four openings in our jurisdiction for episcopal elections in November, the recommendation is that we only elect three. According to the press release, the old New Mexico/Northwest Texas area will not be a landing site for one of the newly elected bishops but rather each of these conferences will continue to be filled as multi-charge sites for our bishops (New Mexico is currently led by Bishop Schnase who also oversees Rio Texas).
When one considers that Northwest Texas will have a special called conference on December 3rd in order to vote on disaffiliations, the remaining churches will amount to the kind of numbers we would see in one of our smaller districts in Oklahoma (around 50). Since this will create an unprecedented change in their conference, it is very, very likely that the Episcopacy Committee will leave Bishop Nunn in his current assignments through 2024.
While I would like to think that the fear of losing Bishop Nunn is prompted by love for him, the message I'm hearing from those who are afraid is that some are concerned a new ultra-liberal bishop will be appointed to Oklahoma in January and make it much more difficult on churches seeking to disaffiliate and clergy seeking to withdraw.
At this time, there are no ultra-liberal bishops that are running for episcopal office in our jurisdiction. When you look at the places sending forth candidates (see above list of states), it allows us to know that we are getting someone from a similar context. The candidates from these conferences must have a wide swath of support from across their conferences even to receive consideration. This means that they have worked well across the theological and philosophical spectrum to be considered.
I know each of the three candidates likely to be elected and know that they are people who work within systems rather than those who would impose some kind of tyranny on those under their care. The conferences that receive them will appreciate their leadership. Regardless, due to the circumstances of Northwest Texas mentioned above, and the intention that the old pairing with New Mexico will not be renewed at this time, the expectation across the jurisdiction is that Bishop Nunn will continue to serve Oklahoma until September 1, 2024 at a minimum. This date follows the normal timeline for jurisdictions to assign bishops for the quadrennium (four-year term).
My hope is that this eases the minds of those within the Oklahoma Conference concerning the future of our church leadership. As people of faith, we remember that God works through our processes as well and does not leave us entirely to our own devices!
I am confident that the people of the Oklahoma area will remain in good hands and that the United Methodists across our jurisdiction will be receiving leadership that will help them rather than hinder them. May God continue to bless the world (and our corner of it) through The United Methodist Church!
Photo by Jeffrey Bruno via Flickr.com. Used under the Creative Commons permission.