| Jun 03, 2013
The other day a colleague of mine and I were discussing last month’s blog and she asked me if pastors and churches are dissatisfied with some of the practices, like paying reports to the bishop, “why don’t African American pastors and churches abandon the Episcopacy altogether?” I believe the answer is that the function and roles bishops play in the Black Church are too important to abandon. And so I want to explore the role of bishops in black churches and why it is important, the issue that I will take up first.
The Scriptural Precedent for Bishops
The office of bishop has been in the church for almost two thousand years. Not only has it been in the church for all this time, it is attested to in the Bible. For these reasons, it is an office of great importance. African American Churches generally take Scripture very seriously, and so, follow leadership models that are mentioned in texts such as 1 Corinthians 12: 27-28, 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Ephesians 4:11. From texts like these, African American churches appoint pastors to teach and lead congregations and bishops or overseers who do these same functions and other functions that sometimes were fulfilled by apostles who appear to usurp pastors in authority and importance in the New Testament. For example, Paul was a prominent apostle in the New Testament who supervised churches in Corinth, Galatia, Thessalonica, Philippi and pastors like Timothy and Titus. This twofold model of a local congregational leader and a supervising leader of churches and pastors is very prominent in black churches. The only difference is that they appoint bishops to do the work previously done by apostles in New Testament times. In fact, I would maintain that the two major offices held by black church leaders are pastor and bishop. Pastors and bishops are respected and sometimes revered in the Black Church. But the respect is not solely due to the fact that these offices are mentioned in Scripture. It has more to do with the function and work that they take up in the church. Since people are aware of the work that pastors do in congregations, I will not discuss it any further but rather focus on the work of bishops, which is a very illuminating feature of any study of this phenomenon.
The Functions of African American Bishops
What are some of the functions of bishops in African American churches? I will briefly mention three. First, bishops care for and oversee local and regional congregations. Sometimes they work with congregations across the nation. Bishops care for pastors and supervise their ministry activities. For example, in Methodist denominations, bishops place pastors in congregations and decide which pastor is an appropriate and good fit for a congregation and also when it is time to relocate a pastor to another congregation. They also handle the delicate and difficult issues that arise in churches when pastoral abuse and misconduct has occurred. I know of one such bishop who had to go into a congregation where a pastor accidentally murdered his secretary (who was his lover) in the church office. It was an incredibly difficult situation for him to handle. Yet he did it with grace and strength. And today, that congregation is still going. This kind of work seems to go beyond the local responsibilities of a pastor.
Second, bishops serve as denominational and or organizational administrators. They facilitate programs and initiatives among the churches they oversee. They educate pastors, ministers, and church leaders. And they work as fund development officers who raise the necessary funds to support the work of the denomination and or organization, a portion of that going directly to them, which is why salaries for bishops are much higher than congregational pastors and why the office is so coveted by pastors and ministers.
Third, and in some cases, bishops serve as community leaders and even a national spokesperson on important issues affecting African Americans. For example, Bishop Henry M. Turner was a leader that addressed major issues affecting blacks and not just issues affecting his denomination. This function is not prominent today. Popular African American bishops are not outspoken leaders on important national issues like education, incarceration, healthcare, and unemployment. Most black bishops are also not theologians or religious scholars. In contrast to African bishops in the early church who were major theologians, African American bishops are rarely theologically trained and are not experts on doctrinal and or religious matters. Instead of serving as leading voices on social issues or theologians, many bishops spend an inordinate amount of their energy and time in church preaching sermons. Bishops are gifted preachers and are called upon to preach in local congregations and at a host of regional and national conferences, which have taken on a life of their own in black churches. It is rare to find an influential African American bishop who is not a gifted preacher and even rarer to find black churches who do not place a heavy demand on their preaching talents.
The Importance of Accessible Bishops
The episcopacy has been and continues to be reconfigured because these newer models are meeting needs in ways the traditional model is not. Pastors and leaders of various kinds are searching for an increased level of accountability, especially among independent, nondenominational churches, and mentoring (think leadership development). There is an increased level of scrutiny (think scandals) and heightened expectations placed upon clergy. Churches expect them to produce results like the church down the street or the mega-church on television. As a result, more pastors are searching for mature and successful leaders, many of whom are bishops, to provide some structure and guidance for them and their ministries. Bishops are accessible and willing to lead pastors in navigating the tumultuous waters of modern ministry. As a result, church structures are changing as more pastors gravitate to bishops and organizations, many times while remaining within their traditional denomination. This is a part of why I believe the episcopacy is so prominent today but there is so much more to this. Stay tuned.