Role of the Bishop

What are a bishop's responsibilities?

A bishop serves as a general superintendent of the entire church.  In the United Methodist tradition, bishops are not "ordained" as bishops, but are clergy elected and consecrated to the office of bishop.  Bishops give general oversight to the worldly and spiritual interests of the Church. Bishops also have the responsibility to see that the rules and regulations developed by General Conference are carried out. Bishops are responsible for setting all clergy appointments in the annual (regional) conferences they serve. Most bishops also serve on a general agency board, often as the president. The bishop is the presiding officer at the annual conference session and they rule on points of law.

Bishops of The United Methodist Church provide spiritual leadership to more than 11 million persons in a broad range of settings on four continents, including North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Historically, bishops preside over Annual and Central Conferences (regional areas of the church). They play an important leadership role in helping to set the direction of the church and its mission throughout the world.

How are bishops selected?

Bishops are elected by the jurisdictional conferences in the United States and by the central conferences outside of the U.S.  "Any clergy member of an annual conference is eligible to be elected a bishop. Nominations or endorsements of individuals are common, but not necessary for election. ... The number of votes needed to elect a bishop is determined by each jurisdictional conference but the church's Book of Discipline recommends that at least 60 percent of those present and voting be required to elect. Bishops are consecrated at the jurisdictional conference and are expected to report for work in their new areas September 1."

Are there women bishops in the United Methodist Church?

Yes, there are active women bishops in The United Methodist Church. The first woman to be elected was the Rev. Marjorie Matthews in 1980. She served the Wisconsin Episcopal Area before her retirement.

How are bishops assigned?

Bishops are assigned by their jurisdiction to serve a geographical area for a four-year term. There are 50 episcopal areas in the United States and 18 episcopal areas outside of the U.S. New bishops may not be assigned to the area where they were a clergy member for at least four years after their election. According to the Book of Discipline, this restriction can be ignored by a two-thirds vote of the Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy and a two-thirds vote of the jurisdictional conference.

How long can a bishop serve?

Normally, bishops serve in one area for up to two terms, but they can continue for a third term with special approval of the jurisdictional conference. Bishops are elected for life and serve in their assignment until retirement (required by the Book of Discipline to be the jurisdictional conference following their 68th birthday).

What year was my bishop elected?

Bishop R. Lawson Bryan was elected a bishop in The United Methodist Church in 2016.  The election years for all of the bishops going back to the beginning of American Methodism are listed in the Book of Discipline.

Who was the first bishop in the Methodist Church?

Although John Wesley never became a bishop, he appointed Thomas Coke bishop for America in 1784. In December of that same year, Francis Asbury was also consecrated as bishop in Baltimore.

What is the Council of Bishops?

The Council of Bishops is made up of all active and retired bishops of The United Methodist Church. The Council meets twice a year. According to the Book of Discipline, "The Church expects the Council of Bishops to speak to the Church and from the Church to the world and to give leadership in the quest for Christian unity and interreligious relationships."

What is the role of the officers of the Council of Bishops?

The President of the Council of Bishops presides over its meetings, but has no additional authority over the other members of the Council.  Administrative work is handled by the Secretary of the Council.

What do bishops do at General Conference?

Members of the Council of Bishops attend General Conference, but do not vote and cannot speak without permission from the delegates. A bishop presides at each plenary session. Each bishop usually serves during one morning, afternoon, or evening session. All bishops, active and retired, attend the entire conference.

United Methodist Bishop Firsts

U.S. Ethnic Minorities
  • The first Asian-American to be elected bishop was Wilbur Choy (Chinese-American) in 1972. He served in the Seattle and San Francisco Episcopal Areas before retirement.
  • The first African-American bishop prior to the union was Francis Burns, elected in 1858 and assigned to Liberia.
  • The first African-American bishops to serve in the United States were Robert E. Jones and Matthew W. Clair Sr., elected in 1920.
  • The first African-American bishop to serve as President of the Council of Bishops was Prince Taylor. Bishop Taylor served as the president in 1965-1966.
  • The first African-American bishop to be elected was Roy Nichols in 1968. Bishop Nichols served in the Pittsburgh and New York Episcopal Areas before retirement.
  • The first African-American woman bishop was Leontine T.C. Kelly, elected in 1984.
  • The first Hispanic-American to be elected was Elias Galvan in 1984. He is currently serving in the Seattle Episcopal Area.
  • Bishop Elias Galvan is the first Hispanic ever to serve as President of the Council of Bishops (in 2001).
  • The first Japanese-American to be elected was Roy Sano in 1984.
  • The first Korean-American to be elected was Hae Jong Kim in 1992. He is currently serving in the Pittsburgh Episcopal Area.
Women
  • The first woman to be elected was Marjorie Matthews in 1980. She served the Wisconsin Episcopal Area before retirement.
  • The first African-American woman bishop was Leontine T.C. Kelly, elected in 1984.
  • The first African-American woman bishop in the Southeastern Jurisdiction was Sharma Lewis, elected in 2016.
  • For the first time in the history of The United Methodist Church, the top two officers of the Council of Bishops are women. Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher became the first woman to be President of the Council and Bishops, Sharon Rader served as secretary in 2002.
Worldwide
  • Bishop Emilio de Carvalho (Angola) was the longest serving bishop in the United Methodist Church. He was an active bishop from 1972-2000.
  • Bishop de Carvalho was also the first African bishop to serve as President of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, from 1991-1992.