As you read these words, I will be flying to Chicago for my final meeting of the ELCA Conference of Bishops. Or I will be in some airport, hoping to get rebooked. When you are elected to be the bishop of a synod of the ELCA, you are automatically a part of the Conference of Bishops. It isn’t optional; it is part of the call. Every bishop of a synod is also a bishop of the whole church. That means being part of the Conference of Bishops.
For my first six years I was part of the Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs Committee. Then for four years I was Chair of the Conference of Bishops, and part of the COB Executive Committee, as well as the Church Council Executive Committee. Now I am part of the Synodical and Churchwide Relations Committee. We monitor the issues described in our name.
Twice a year the Conference of Bishops meets as a whole—usually for 5 or 6 days. It may surprise you to know that the Conference of Bishops, by and large, does not make policy for the church. Many people make that assumption—that when the bishops gather they make policies and proclamations. This is a mistaken notion that comes from watching from afar how gatherings of bishops in other church bodies function. We are not Catholic, or Episcopalian or Methodist. We are ELCA.
In the ELCA, it is the Church Council that is the decision-making body when the triennial Churchwide Assembly is not in session. The Conference of Bishop’s main role is to advise and consult, not to govern. The COB is not a governing body. Read what the ELCA Constitution says:
“The Conference of Bishops shall consult with and advise the Church Council. It may make recommendations to the presiding bishop of the church and to the Church Council, respond to referrals from the Church Council, and refer concerns and proposals to the Church Council. At each meeting the Conference of Bishops shall receive a report from the Church Council brought by the vice president of this church. “ (10.81.01)
During my tenure we began to invite members of the Church Council, in addition to the Vice President, to attend COB meetings. Visiting Council members were surprised to see the contrast between their meetings and the COB. One said: “We spend all our time making decisions, with very little time to reflect and discern. You spend all your time reflecting and discerning, with almost no opportunity to make decisions.”
It is true. There are very few issues on which the Conference of Bishops has the final say. The major one is the roster—who can be issued a call, who can be given extra time on leave, which unusual circumstances justify setting aside timelines. Recently the Montana Synod asked for a call to a deacon who was non-stipendiary. After consideration, the Roster Committee granted our request, and passed it on to the full body, who agreed.
Mostly, the Conference of Bishops advises churchwide units and staff, hears about programs and policies, listens to and voices concerns, and makes formal recommendations, when appropriate, to the Church Council. The Church Council is where the buck stops.
I want to say a word about our polity. It is very intentional that the buck stops with the Churchwide Assembly, and with the Church Council in between assemblies. The Church Council, like the Churchwide Assembly and all properly constituted governing bodies in the ELCA, is made up of at least 60% laity. This is important. The ELCA is a church that takes laity seriously, so seriously that we are committed to having a majority of lay persons in every governing body.
I think this is one of the reasons that the ELCA has been more successful than some other denominations in instituting and enforcing a no-tolerance policy for sexual abuse. We don’t have a system where clergy can protect clergy. Our design incorporates more transparency, more accountability. We are not perfect. But our system keeps us in check.
What the Conference of Bishop brings to meetings twice a year, is not only their own interests and gifts, but the wisdom of every congregation in the ELCA. It is said that only when the COB meets is there somebody in the room who knows every congregation in the ELCA, and speaks for them. For the next week I will be representing you in my conversations with colleagues in Chicago. Pray for us.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA