by Bob Phillips

Jurisdictional conferences (may) convene in 2022 to select a fresh bag of bishops for the church.  Selecting senior spiritual leadership is not a responsibility unique to United Methodists.  In the military, ‘selection boards’ composed of a mix of chaplain and non-chaplain officers meet annually to select senior chaplain (colonel or captain) leaders.  The criteria for selection are nuanced by the religious nature of chaplaincy but are framed by the same sort of leadership qualities expected of regular line officers.  Helpful nuggets of wisdom from the military process can encourage jurisdictional delegates and other interested observers.  I offer some insights based on personal experience with a number of selection boards, augmented by serving as a delegate to the 2016 Jurisdictional conference that selected four new bishops (out of 9 for the jurisdiction). This builds on a piece I first published in United Methodist Reporter in 2000.

First, gain clarity on what a bishop is and is not.  Military selection boards have a document that clarifies the qualities crucial for promotion to that level of leadership.  This helps board members see the difference among candidates who are fully qualified and those who are best qualified.  Selection is not a reward but an affirmation that the selectee has what is needed most to function at senior supervisory levels. Bishops are the senior supervisors of the church.  A record of creating, imparting and following through with a strategic spiritual vision is part of that mix.  How much do strong preaching gifts matter?  How important are interpersonal or administrative strengths? Does anyone actually know where the candidates stand on the theological spectrum and, if so, what is the source of that knowledge and how has it been seen specifically, constructively and measurably at work in the practice of that person’s ministry?   

Second, beware ethical reefs and shoals. The opening sentence (literally) when the 2016 team began framing the process for selecting a bishop candidate was this: “White males are not very electable as bishops in the NC Jurisdiction.” The speaker, a veteran of several Jurisdictional conferences, was not speaking from a heart of bigotry against white males. The speaker was honestly reflecting the dynamics of the selection process she had seen up close on several occasions, which happened to include subtle but clear racial-gender-ethnic-age profiling. That must be held in tension with the fact that prior to 2016 my conference had never nominated a racial/ethnic minority or female as candidate. Age and gender play a role in the military selection process but any suggestion of profiling will lead to invalidating board selections and a re-do of the process, an option not available in the church process. Individual delegations and the whole of gathered delegates are wise to assess entrenched interest groups with care (but not dismiss them out of hand) and be wary of any sense that external factors perceived to favor a candidate do not align with clear metrics of that person’s effectiveness.

Third, in the words of Ernest T. Campbell, “Blessed are those who fill the positions that they occupy.”  A laundry list of choice churches and committee jobs on the resume’ clarifies what positions the person has occupied.  How effectively he or she filled those positions is the question. Not everyone who has served a large church can grow a large church. Has the candidate initiated and implemented programs that have made a lasting ministry difference in their place of service?  Looking for examples that quantify the impact of the person’s ministry is vital to the sifting process. For example, I have heard several insist any viable candidate must have served as a District Superintendent. I recall one (successful) candidate where the resume emphasized DS experience, neglecting to add that membership in the district declined by 33% in the five years of that person’s tenure, just as attendance had dropped in every church the individual pastored. Raising those metrics was viewed as uncouth or judgmental by some. Numbers aren’t everything but clear criteria for defining excellence and effectiveness matters.

Fourth, some things don’t matter.  Chaplain selection boards confirm that candidates have accredited degrees but care little as to where they graduated.  Post-seminary performance is what matters.  An Iliff graduate may or may not be an “airhead liberal.”  An Asbury graduate may or may not be a “snake-handling reactionary.” Post-seminary performance will reveal the candidate’s balance and effectiveness. 

Fifth, “safe” means “more of the same.”  Selection boards are encouraged to include those who color outside the lines toward constructive ends.  Proven innovators in leadership can add vigor to institutions naturally inclined toward inertia. Jurisdictional delegates tend to be honorable clergy and laity with long records of insider support for the system.  That attitude is not a sin but a denomination that has moved from stagnation toward numerical freefall would be wise to look outside the box as a source for at least some future leadership. Innovative and creative clergy with proven effectiveness deserve serious consideration. ‘Outside the box’ fits traditional as well as more liberal types.

Sixth, know the records of the candidates. In selection boards, the record of every candidate is briefed to the board by a board member, as all names are distributed among the board to break down significant numbers into manageable data gulps. This ensures all are fairly presented to the entire board. A consistent summary sheet on each officer under consideration is prepared for the board to ensure an informed and level playing field. Gossip or salacious suggestions not validated in the record is excluded and, if attempted, leads to the dismissal of the board member. Granted, every candidate for bishop has an official campaign bio fit for publication in the latest issue of “Lives of the Saints.” A standard record for the entire board could include basic information of age-origins-education-marital/family status. To that could be added basic metrics of churches served, including data I was surprised to see not included in typical candidate information. As drawn from UMDATA.ORG, this could include length of service, membership and attendance the year prior to arrival and year of departure of each church served, one or two specific accomplishments that outlasted their tenure, and what they chose to highlight as examples of their ministerial qualities (property improvement, creation of a soup kitchen, 7 candidates for ordained ministry, 6 indictments but no convictions). The selection of highlights itself reveals something of the candidate. Potentially sensitive material, good as well as not so good, also needs appropriate discussion: a long-ago DUI, a happy marriage preceded by 4 earlier marriages, 3 years playing for the Cardinals or even the Cubs prior to entering ministry. I recall one candidate for ministry (not bishop) whose request to serve as a local pastor was being drawn out because he was in his 60’s and didn’t seem sophisticated, until the board learned the candidate also was a recipient of the Medal of Honor, which helped explain where he was in his early 20’s while his detractors were safely in seminary.  Those in discernment have a right and need to know any personal material relevant to the best choice. On one occasion in another jurisdiction I became aware of a potential candidate who neglected to mention a spouse who was a registered sex offender, until that spouse was arrested for a reoccurrence of misconduct. Transparency does not require National Inquirer shamelessness but true openness and confidentiality in the process.

Seventh, discern high-visibility candidates with care. Jurisdictions tend to have ‘popular son’ or ‘popular daughter’ candidates in the mix who are accompanied by high public visibility for this or that reason. That is fine, and depending on the nature of the publicity, could be a plus, but not necessarily. A chaplain who had received positive national visibility was not selected for promotion due to a consistent documented unwillingness to embrace teamwork or share credit. High visibility does not automatically equal high effectiveness. A high-visibility candidate was elected unanimously. Later it emerged that the candidate’s previous church had dropped over 50% in attendance, that the Christian sacraments were excluded from Sunday morning services, and that Charge Conference-Trustees-Church Council-Finance-SPRC had been discontinued years earlier, culminating in a former crown-jewel church of the jurisdiction ceasing to function as United Methodist and leaving the denomination 36 months after that pastor’s election. Beware press clippings as a substitute for the work of prayerfully drilling down on relevant data for every candidate.

Finally, team building matters.  A senior officer whose ego enters the office 10 minutes before he or she does will not create an effective team.  A certain chaplain was described to me as one for a reputation of leaving a trail of bodies of subordinates professionally murdered by this chaplain’s demands and vicious evaluations. Candidates with ‘good paper’ records who could start a fight in an empty room will not be good leaders.  Nor is passive leadership true leadership. Recall that the word “nice” is not in the Bible. Those who have proven abilities to work with diverse types and to bring them together to measurably productive ends, without resorting to dishonesty or denial over differences, are wiser choices as bishop to herd United Methodist or other Methodist cats.

Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)