I am writing this E-pistle from Akron, Ohio, where the North Central Jurisdiction will have its quadrennial conference this week. Our NCJ College of Bishops is meeting today in preparation for the NCJ Conference. Those terms (NCJ College and NCJ Conference) refer to our North Central Jurisdiction of the UMC which includes the states from Ohio to the Dakotas. In this region we currently have 10 Areas served by one bishop each, but those Areas are being reduced to 9. Since we only have one bishop retiring this year (Bishop Linda Lee), we will not be electing any new bishops but rather the NCJ Committee on Episcopacy will be assigning the 9 of us remaining bishops to serve the 9 Areas.
Some may wonder why the NJC Conference is even going to meet when its primary purpose is to elect bishops and we have no elections this year? Good question. There is some other business of the NCJ Conference, such as approving the NCJ budget and electing persons from the NCJ to serve on general agencies. We will also celebrate Bishop Lee’s retirement. In reality there is not much business for the NCJ Conference, and in fact this situation illustrates that the whole Jurisdictional system may be on its last legs.
The jurisdictions were created as a compromise when the Methodist Church united in 1939 to overcome the north and south split which had occurred just before the Civil War. Two compromises were made to allow that reunification: 5 geographic jurisdictions were created so that regional control could be maintained by parts of the north and the south, and 1 racial jurisdiction (the Central Jurisdiction) to place most African-American churches in a segregated system. Thankfully the Central Jurisdiction was eliminated in 1968 but the regional Jurisdictions remain.
Many are questioning the need of the regional jurisdictions. With the Annual Conferences getting larger and larger through merges (like ours in Indiana and more recent ones which have united Nebraska and Kansas), some are wondering if other regional structures are needed. Others have noted that the expense of having a Jurisdictional Conference (about $350,000 for the NCJ Conference) could be reduced or eliminated if bishops were elected at General Conference – even if those elections still happened in regional groupings while those delegates are already present (it should be noted that the Jurisdictional Conference includes double the number of delegates from each Annual Conference, but that could be changed or at least bringing those persons to the site of General Conference would be less than having all the Jurisdictional delegates travel and meet at a separate time). Some have even wondered even if we should return to electing bishops at General Conference without dividing into regional groups, although the growing global nature of our church likely means that regional election processes are still needed).
All of this will make for interesting conversation during our NCJ Conference, since we will have less to do with no new bishops to elect.
And of course the 9 of us remaining active bishops in the NCJ will wait eagerly to be told by the NCJ Committee on Episcopacy where we will be serving the next four years. We bishops are the most truly itinerant clergy in the UMC – literally waiting to be told where to go and serve. At a time when other clergy and congregations have more and more say in the appointment of pastors, the assignment of bishops seems like an arbitrary process with little room for long-term missional planning. But that is a topic for another E-pistle.
Meanwhile please keep the NCJ Conference in your prayers. Perhaps this week will provide some good, creative thinking about the future of jurisdictions in our United Methodist Church.