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NCJ committee proposes return to 9 bishops

Members of the NCJ College of Bishops

The Committee on Episcopacy recommends to delegates to the upcoming North Central Jurisdictional Conference that the number of active bishops is not sustainable and should be returned to nine until the next General Conference.

JAMES DEATON
Content Editor

The North Central Jurisdiction (NCJ) will convene in Fort Wayne, IN, November 2-5, 2022, with the theme We Press On. This jurisdictional conference will gather delegates—lay and clergy—from across Illinois (Northern Illinois, Illinois Great Rivers), Indiana, Iowa, Ohio (East Ohio and West Ohio), Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin for a momentous time filled with worship and collective discernment regarding the election of episcopal leadership and receiving episcopal assignments.

During the special called session of the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in 2021, the delegates affirmed the recommendation from the Committee on Episcopacy to reduce the number of active bishops in the jurisdiction from nine to eight. This recommendation came from the NCJ Committee on Episcopacy, who, with the NCJ College of Bishops, had determined the prudence of anticipating a General Council on Finance and Administration (GFCA)-announced reduction ahead of the 2020 General Conference. The recommendation was made prayerfully and proactively, using the data and information received at that time.

However, as the NCJ has attempted to live out the experiment of reduced episcopal leadership, the reduction has been found to be impractical at the present moment. There are multiple factors affecting this reality. Two bishops are assuming oversight of additional annual conferences for what has turned into a 24-month “interim.” Since January 1, 2021, Bishop David Bard has been serving Minnesota on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for the Michigan Conference. Bishop Laurie Haller had been serving the Dakotas on an interim basis in addition to being resident bishop for Iowa, but is now on medical leave. Bishop Deborah Kiesey is now providing episcopal leadership for the Iowa and Dakotas Conferences during Bishop Haller’s absence. Another contributing factor is the uncertainty triggered by the pre-General Conference launch of the Global Methodist Church.

According to Nichea VerVeer Guy, Michigan delegate and Committee on Episcopacy member, “The NCJ Committee on Episcopacy has been working tirelessly to work out a plan to serve the episcopal areas it serves. They, with the College of Bishops, appointed a task force to assess and recommend a feasible way forward.” With multiple postponements of General Conference and NCJ, the task force realigned its recommendations when the review of shared areas showed they were no longer short-term appointments.

The Committee on Episcopacy acknowledges that a reduction in the number of bishops in the North Central Jurisdiction will likely be both necessary and inevitable following the transitions facing The United Methodist Church in 2024. But for the present moment, the committee believes the current reduction will not help our jurisdiction “press on” into the future.

The North Central Jurisdiction has been offered flexibility by the recent Judicial Council ruling and affirmation by the GFCA: “Absent General Conference action, the formula and number of bishops for each jurisdiction approved by the 2016 General Conference remain legally binding and effective until replaced by a new formula.”

As a result of the work of the task force and prayerful discernment, after consultation with the NCJ College of Bishops, the NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy proposes the following for delegates to consider at the upcoming jurisdictional conference:

    1. The North Central Jurisdiction will reverse the decision of NCJ 2021, thereby returning the total number to nine active bishops, beginning January 1, 2023, until the next General Conference declares otherwise.
    2. Additionally, the NCJ will be asked to reaffirm the Dakotas and Minnesota returning to a single episcopal area, being served by one (1) bishop.

These proposals are presented for the short term, in order to help United Methodists in this jurisdiction navigate the uncertainty of the present time. The NCJ Committee on the Episcopacy anticipates that the jurisdictional conference session of 2024 may bring new developments and circumstances, including several mandatory episcopal retirements. They believe that returning to nine active bishops for the interim will provide greater “breathing room” to help prepare for those decisions at that time.

Jacqueline Euper, an 18-year member of the Committee on the Episcopacy from Michigan, urges delegates to support these recommendations: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, our process as a United Methodist denomination has been interrupted. Not having a General nor Jurisdictional Conference in 2020, although necessarily postponed, has left us in great need of bishops to replace the two retirements. We are so grateful for those who have stepped into those two areas to keep ministry in motion, but we need all of the vacancies filled to reorganize, reassess, and prepare for 2024 and beyond.”

Laura Witkowski, co-chair of the Michigan delegation and vice-chair of the NCJ Mission Council, expresses appreciation for the thoughtfulness of episcopal leadership and the need to support them in these trying times: “The physical, mental, and spiritual health of our bishops is important to consider, and I imagine the committee reflected on this as well. While consistency is important right now, it is also unhelpful to continue with an experiment that is no longer working. The thoughtful leadership of [Rev. Sara Isbell, chair of the committee,] and Bishop Bard, and the committee, is a gift to our jurisdiction. The Michigan Delegation is looking forward to fulfilling this important task of electing new episcopal leadership that will build up the body of Christ in The United Methodist Church.”

Delegations are encouraged to begin conversation regarding these important legislative recommendations. All United Methodists across the North Central Jurisdiction are invited to begin praying for the conference, the delegates, and the important decisions that will be made in November.

Visit the NCJ website for more information on the upcoming jurisdictional conference and related business.

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