A new bishop

The Protestant Reformation was a major realignment within the church and there were many different issues and differences that became dynamics in the change. Among those complex dynamics was a discussion about power in the church and the best way for the church to organize itself. After the Great Schism of 1054 both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches emerged is similar hierarchical structures. Each had bishops who had authority over pastors, and cardinals who had authority over bishops. In the Roman Catholic Church there is a pope who is the singular head of the church. In the Orthodox church there is not a singular pope, but rather councils who exercise authority. The Protestant Reformation was a split within Roman Catholicism and part of that split was a break from the hierarchy. Some Protestant churches rejected the entire notion of top down authority and gave the authority to interpret scripture to each member of the church. Within contemporary protestant churches there are many different structures and ways of governing the church.

One of the major parties to the union that formed our United Church of Christ was the Congregational Church. Growing from the congregations formed by Puritan and Pilgrim settlers who came from Europe to the United States, there was a strong conviction that authority rested in the local congregation and that Associations and Conferences of churches were organized for mission, but not for theological authority. Associations and Conferences were not given authority over local churches, but rather derived their authority from local churches. The resulting way of organizing congregations has become known as congregational polity and is practiced by many different denominations, including Baptist, Assemblies of God, the Christian Church and the United Church of Christ. Other branches of Protestantism have adopted an ecclesiastical polity. The Anglican communion, which includes the Episcopal church in the United States has such a structure and that form of church governance is also called episcopal polity. It is hierarchal with bishops having authority over the pastors of local congregations. A similar structure has been adopted by other churches, including the United Methodist Church.

There are other forms of church governance including Presbyterian polity which places authority in Presbyteries or assemblies of elders. And there are all sorts of forms of hybrid and modified forms of church governance throughout the many and diverse forms of Protestant Christianity.

Living a life of faithful discipleship is a challenge for all Christians and there can be different ways of interpreting the scriptures and traditions of the church. We each have our own set of rules by which we organize ourselves and those rules are in constant flux and change. One of the places where a major shift in church polity is occurring in our contemporary world is the United Methodist Church which faces a major vote in February that would result in the ecclesiastical authority of bishops being spread out and the church becoming slightly more congregational in its understanding of the book of discipline.

The differences and shifts in structure are of interest mostly to students of the church and its governance. Most church members see their primary relationship in terms of membership in a local church and if that relationship is strong, they are only mildly interested in how the wider church is organized. If they love the fellowship and worship of their local church and enjoy the leadership of their pastor, they don’t concern themselves much with the dynamics of wider church politics.

Occasionally, however those politics come into play in a local church, most notably when there is a change in the pastor. When a congregation is seeking a new pastor, there are many different ways in which new leadership is chosen. In an episcopal church, the bishop appoints a new pastor. In a congregational church, the congregation votes to elect a new pastor. Some communions are able to make changes in pastoral leadership swiftly. In others it can take a long time to search for and call a new pastor.

Ours is a communion where search and call can take quite a while as local churches are matched with pastoral candidates through the work of the Conference in cooperation with Parish Life and Leadership in the national setting of our church. As is true with all forms of church governance, there is significant prayer and discernment of God’s will in the process.

Last night we had the honor of being invited to a celebration banquet on the occasion of the installation of a newly consecrated bishop in the Church of God in Christ. In that communion, a bishop can also be a local church pastor. It is not a foregone conclusion that Rapid City would be the place where the Bishop of South Dakota would reside, but the previous bishop and the newly-consecrated bishop have both been the pastor of Faith Temple, our local congregation. the new bishop and I have formed a friendship over the years as we have worked together on a variety of community service and ecumenical worship projects.

The occasion of the installation of a new bishop is a cause for a great celebration and last night’s festivities included moving music, testimonials from individuals, a powerful sermon, and special recognitions as well as an excellent meal and plenty of fellowship around the tables. We are met familiar with all of the ways of the Church of God in Christ but there was much of the celebration that felt very familiar to us with our background in the United Church of Christ. We were warmly welcomed and included in all of the evening’s celebrations.

Once again my conviction that we do not need to all be the same was reinforced. Although I have been grateful to be a pastor in our denomination, I have deep appreciation for their denomination and its way of organizing itself for mission and ministry. We can be partners in many different ways as we go forward to serve our community. I look forward to working with the bishop as he exercises his authority in their church and I recognize that authority as having come from God.

I’ll probably continue to call him by his first name when we are together, but in formal and public settings I will use his title as a sign of respect and admiration for the work he has don and the authority that has been bestowed on him by his church.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!