| May 13, 2013
Our guiding question has been “Why is there a need for bishops in churches without an Episcopal structure or bishops in nondenominational churches?” It is apparent that the Black Church is changing, especially due to the influence of Pentecostalism. However, the increasing interest in the episcopacy and the increasing numbers of bishops in African American churches is not just because of the influence of Pentecostalism. The changes in worship style, spiritual practices, and church polity are only part of the story. There is a functional dimension to this that popular critiques of this trend miss. There are more bishops in black churches because of the increased demand for new or different bishops from African American congregants and clergy. The real question is “What is driving the demand?”
The increased demand for different or new bishops is an indication of something wrong in denominational churches with an Episcopal structure, like the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME), or Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (PAW). I believe that one major reason African American Christians are doing this is because of the abuses some pastors, ministers, and other church members have experienced by denominational bishops.
These Episcopal denominational churches are structured in a way that requires pastors and churches, many of which are small, struggling churches, to pay reports (think money) to the bishop. In some of these churches, those monies are for the bishop to use at his or her discretion, many of which choose to keep those monies for themselves and the larger churches they serve. I spent years in a denomination like this as a pastor. I witnessed firsthand the abuse of bishops over pastors and churches. A bishop would come into small churches and take as much money as he could and the monies given to the bishop rarely trickled back down to churches and pastors that may need them or local communities. In the cases when pastors and churches could not pay a report to the bishop they were embarrassed, many times publicly. So there is an incredible amount of pressure to not be the pastor or church that cannot make a report to the bishop. Possibly the worst aspect of this kind of relationship is if pastors needed counsel from the bishop, they found that bishops were unavailable and some bishops discourage their pastors from contacting them. Experiences like these are very much a part of the demand for something different.
The Black Church, for the most part, has been an institution committed to serving the needs of a marginalized and oppressed people, not the maintenance of structures that exist to serve religious leaders. Today there is a clear disconnect with this system that offers few benefits for pastors and local communities. And so I am not surprise that there are a number of pastors, ministers, and congregants who leave these churches and find bishops and church structures where these practices are not replicated. What we see today are a number of pastors who are no longer willing to serve in churches where there is an oppressive tax system that does not benefit local churches or to follow bishops who are inaccessible to the pastors and ministers who serve congregations. Pastors in nondenominational churches and fellowships with bishops have access to them in ways pastors in denominational churches do not. This is an important factor in the emergence of the episcopacy in the new black church.