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Bishop's Column: Becoming a Bishop

Posted: September 21 2022 at 03:52 PM
Author: Bishop John L. Hopkins

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Joseph Sprague, Jonathan Keaton, John Hopkins, and Michael Coyner are consecrated bishops in The United Methodist Church July 20, 1996. Bishops William Lewis, Sheldon Duecker, Edwin Boulton, David Lawson, Sharon Brown Christopher, and Judith Craig preside.

You may have heard the story of a little girl who was asked, “What does a bishop do?” And she responded, “Moves diagonally!” referring to a chess piece sliding across the chessboard. Many people see the joke that a bishop, like a chess piece, tries not to be pinned down. However, the truth behind the little girl’s response is that a bishop is supposed to join the Queen in protecting the King. Isn’t a bishop elected to promote and protect Jesus and his Church?

“Bishops are elected…and set apart for a ministry of servant leadership, general oversight, and supervision. As followers of Jesus Christ, bishops are authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church. (The Book of Discipline, Par. 403)

In 1996 I was only in my sixth year in the South Indiana Conference and pastor of The Methodist Temple in Evansville when the delegation selected me as a candidate for bishop. The Rev. Susan Ruach led the delegation through a discernment process to see if anyone should be recommended from South Indiana, where Leroy Hodapp and David Lawson had been elected as bishops by previous jurisdictional conferences. I did not offer myself; they prayed and asked me!

Of course, I could have refused, except for me, it would have been saying, “No!” to Christ and his Church. You see, I experienced the grace of God through the presence of Jesus at an early age. When I was ordained an elder and became a member of the conference, I placed my heart and ministry at the direction of the Church. Wesley’s Covenant Prayer was personal as I repeated, “I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee… Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.” 

Somewhere along the way, I was taught that my identity and ministry were given in my baptism. All lay and clergy ministries are rooted in baptism. Even before I was ordained an elder, my ministry belonged to Jesus and his Church. Therefore, when I was elected bishop along with Joseph Sprague, Jonathan Keaton, and Michael Coyner at the 1996 North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, I sensed God’s call to the Episcopacy. Immediately, I was no longer a member of my conference but a member of the Council of Bishops. As I was escorted to the stage by Bishop Woodie White, someone else moved into my seat on the delegation, and I had no idea where I would be assigned!

The Consecration Service was held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, just two blocks from where I attended high school, played football, prepared for college, and graduated with Elaine. The Examination included the question, “Will you guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church against all that is contrary to God’s Word?” The most solemn moment was the “Laying On of Hands,” where the congregation invokes the Holy Spirit in prayer. Every bishop in the Jurisdictional College places their hands on each new bishop with a blessing and words of encouragement. An episcopal stole, a crosier, and a Bible are presented as a sign of the office. 

“Bishops are elected… from the group of elders who are ordained to be ministers of Word, Sacrament, and Order and thereby participate in the ministry of Christ, in sharing a royal priesthood which has apostolic roots.” (I Peter 2:9; John 21:15-17; Acts 20:28; I Peter 5:2-3, I Timothy 3:1-7).

Bishops are called to serve the whole church and not just the area to which they are assigned. Together, as the global Council of Bishops, they represent the collective Executive branch of our church, while the General Conference and Judicial Council represent the Legislative and Judicial branches. We are considered an “episcopal” church because we have bishops as overseers who ordain, commission, license and appoint clergy to local churches. We are also a “democratic” church with much authority invested in General, Jurisdictional, and Annual Conferences with clergy and laity making decisions about church policies.

Bishops do not work alone or have a constituency to “represent” other than the whole church. Our connection allows every United Methodist to have a pastor, a district superintendent, and a bishop. We have a supervised ministry that seeks to train our pastors and protect our members from authoritarian power and misconduct. We may serve in local congregations, but with our connection, we share the love of Jesus around the world. This is one of many reasons why I love being a United Methodist. [Sidebar link to Alabama-West Florida Statement?]

I was assigned to Minnesota for eight years, East Ohio for twelve years, and after four years of retirement, to Northern Illinois for two years. In every assignment, very few people knew me when I arrived, but they called me “Bishop” and welcomed me into their hearts and lives. I’ll never forget a clergywoman who greeted me at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. She walked up with another clergywoman, shook my hand, and said, “We’re praying for you bishop, and we’re not going to let you fail.” I smiled, and as she started to walk away, she turned and added, “Oh, it is not personal. We need you to succeed so our church will succeed and be faithful.”

On November 5, newly elected bishops will be consecrated in Ft. Wayne again and assigned by the North Central Jurisdictional Conference to serve in Episcopal Areas, including the Chicago Area. Whoever is assigned to the Northern Illinois Conference will follow in the footsteps of Bishops Duecker, Sprague, Jung, Dyck, and myself. As you love, respect, and pray for your local pastor and church, I encourage you to love, respect and pray for your new bishop and The United Methodist Church.

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