A nation-wide leadership search is taking place in the United Methodist Church this week in three locations where church delegates are electing eleven new bishops. This process of discernment will be of particular interest in Southwest Georgia since one of the nominees is the highly qualified Dr. Robert Beckum, former pastor of First United Methodist Church in Albany. One election is taking place at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, where 14 candidates seek to be elected to replace five retiring bishops. Dr. Beckum would serve the church very well.
What is the most appropriate way to secure church leadership? In the Old Testament God often anointed leaders through a prophet who selected Israel’s next king. Samuel filled the role of kingmaker, finding King Saul hiding among the baggage and anointing him king, then later selecting the insignificant, overlooked child David to replace Saul. There was no election. God spoke through a prophet.
In the New Testament (Acts 1) the disciples, determined to maintain twelve disciples in the face of Judas’ death, narrowed their choices to two men and cast lots to select the right person, thus leaving the final choice in God’s hand.
I’m not suggesting such a process for local or national secular elections. Republican Mitt Romney, for instance, is using a questionnaire with 80 probing, personal questions for each potential candidate who might become his running mate. Officeholders will always be selected by the voters, even though there are examples of elections ending in a tie vote where the top two candidates broke the tie by tossing the dice, flipping a coin or drawing for high card.
But do we need to elect church leaders, at any level of governance, in the same way we elect secular officeholders? Yes, the United Methodist Church has elected God-filled men and women as bishops over the years. But having been privileged to be a voter five times over twenty years in these Methodist elections I’m not sure we came out any better for the long season of church campaigning and speechifying leading up to a five day conference filled with droning reports, sidewalk arm twisting and excruciatingly lengthy worship services thinly disguised as time-fillers between each successive ballot. Usually by the time the final bishop was elected everyone is exhausted, thanking the deity that the process is over for another four years.
The Hutterites in Montana (akin to Mennonites and Amish) may point the way forward by how they select the leader of their religious community. They narrow the choices down to six-seven candidates and then put an equal number of slips of paper in a hat. Six slips are blank and the seventh says Soll Lahrar sain (You shall be the Lord’s servant.) Each candidate draws a slip of paper and God makes the choice, therefore avoiding electioneering, church politicking and resentment, not to mention the holding of costly, time-wasting and largely unnecessary conferences.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.