Clergy accountability was a strong theme during this morning’s legislative session. Legislation was passed that made fiscal malfeasance and possession of pornography to be chargeable offenses. Additionally, a constitutional amendment was passed that allows the Council of Bishops to hold individual Bishops accountable for their performance and behavior.
I believe both of these pieces of legislation are extremely helpful. Clergy should be accountable for overseeing the financial health of their churches with integrity. And pornography is one of the most destructive and least talked about problems our society is facing. It exploits women and men, destroys families, and leads to extreme risky behavior. It is also extremely pervasive and addictive. I would urge any clergy who struggle with pornography to view this new legislation as a warning to get help before pornography destroys your career and relationships.
I also support the plan to give the Council of Bishops the right to hold individual Bishops accountable. Everyone needs accountability in their work, personal life, and spiritual life. To have an organization where those at the top are not directly accountable to any person or group is asking for trouble. I have heard some concerns about the policies by which this accountability will be implemented. However, if the accountability procedures passed today prove problematic, I hope they can be improved at future General Conferences.
During the lunch break, SEJ delegates had the chance to hear speeches from 7 of our Episcopal nominees. Our Holston delegation watched proudly as our nominee David Graves articulated his passion and vision for ministry to our friends from around the southeast. There was a brief protest during the opening of the afternoon session involving mainly singing, still the General Conference was able to begin its work on time with a minimal interruption.
During the afternoon session, legislation came before the body that would place term-limits on Bishops. Under the proposed legislation, Bishops would be elected to 8 year terms with the possibility of being re-elected once for one additional 8 year term, for a combined maximum total of 16 years of service as a Bishop. This was a constitutional amendment that required a two-thirds super majority to pass. The legislation failed 482 (for) versus 332 (against). It received 59% of the vote, but 66% was needed since it was a constitutional amendment.
Personally, I felt the legislation to institute term-limits for Bishops was the most important legislation before us at this General Conference other than legislation regarding human sexuality and church unity. The role of Bishop is quite different from the role of pastor or even District Superintendent. We need the ability to ask Bishops to step back into the local church if we deem that to be best and Bishops need the ability to gracious step back into pastoral ministry of they fueled led to do so. Moreover, we have great trouble electing younger Bishops who are immensely qualified to bring a fresh perspective and leadership style to our annual conferences. However, we cannot afford to elect a Bishop in their early or mid-40s because if they turn out not to be well suited for the role of Bishop we could conceivable be stuck with them for 24 years.
Legislation giving Bishops increased ability to assign sacramental authority to Deacons was approved overwhelmingly 631-168. As an elder who serves with two deacons at my local church, I am thrilled by this change because I believe it will help us work together more cohesively as a pastoral staff to care for the needs of our congregants.
What everyone will remember most about today, however, was the talk about the possibility of a plan to move towards an amicable separation within the denomination. It came to my attention late Monday night that leaders from all sides within our denomination had been talking together for some time about trying to find a way forward around our disagreements regarding human sexuality. After not being able to make any progress while discussing every possible compromise, this group began to talk about what amicable separation would look like.
During the afternoon session, a motion was put forward by several of the leading pastors in our denomination to ask the Council of Bishops to consider the issue of how to move forward and the possibility of calling a special session of General Conference in 2018 to address it. The motion passed and the Bishops will bring back their recommendation to the General Conference tomorrow.
I know that several of the leaders involved in these conversations want to find a united way forward together as much or more than I do. Yet, they do not see a way forward and they are fearful that our current conflicts will escalate so exponentially in the next 4 years that all of our institutional ministry will be focused on this conflict rather than on sharing the Gospel.
Let me explain some of the concerns that have led to this drastic step. Our General Conferences has not ever been able to pass any compromise legislation. And the prospects this time around are not promising. There is great concern that The Discipline will get significantly more conservative with harsher penalties for disobedience in the future if not this year. At that point, several of our jurisdictions would begin functioning in full disobedience to The Discipline which would put us in an unsustainable situation.
We all know there are no easy answers to the issues we face. We also know we worship a God who specializes in making ways out of no way. Please join me in praying for our Bishops today as they seek to decipher a way forward. Their guidance and the decisions of this General Conference will have monumental implications for our church and our witness.