November 05, 2022
NOTE: This story was updated at 8:30 am Nov. 5 to revise the meeting date for the Episcopacy Committee; clarify Bonnie Marden's service to NEJ Episcopacy Committee
Nov. 4 was a foggy morning in College Park, MD, as the delegates to the 21st Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference gathered to hear the episcopal assignments.
The fog seemed apt as the New England Delegation learned shortly before the public announcement that its path forward was not fully clear as the Boston Area’s new episcopal leader has not yet been named.
“This is hard news,” said Rev. Dr. Jay Williams, who heads the NE Delegation.
“We’re so grateful for Bishop Devadhar’s leadership that got us here, and we thought we’d be leaving the jurisdictional conference knowing who our new bishop would be,” he said. “We don’t have that news, so we feel like there’s an extension of this liminal period that we’ve been in since the postponement of the General Conference and even before then.”
The NE delegates stood together at the back of the plenary space as one of their number, Bonnie Marden, who chaired the NEJ Committee on Episcopacy, her term ended Nov. 4, announced the assignments for the next 18 months.
The NEJ’s current assignments remain unchanged, including the new coverage plans that have bishops serving more than one conference or sharing coverage responsibilities that developed following the retirements of Bishop Peggy Johnson and Bishop Jeremiah Park [see list below].
Newly elected Bishop Héctor A. Burgos-Núñez was assigned to the Upper NY Conference, whose current bishop, Mark J. Webb, announced his retirement this summer.
That leaves the New England Conference (Boston Area).
Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling said she wanted to “take a bit more time and be intentional” when speaking to delegates on behalf of the NEJ College of Bishops.
“There was one election,” Bishop Easterling said. “It was then known that a new coverage model was going to have to be designed.”
The delegates had agreed to elect two new bishops at this conference, but after 18 ballots and a seeming deadlock between the two top vote-getters (Dr. Williams and Alyce Weaver Dunn, Western PA), a motion was approved to delay the election of a second bishop until 2024. (Read more on that here).
“The Committee on Episcopacy labored through the night to discern how best to meet the missional needs and challenges [of the jurisdiction] with the gifts and graces of the servant leaders that are presently before you,” Bishop Easterling said.
“As the landscape of United Methodism, its leadership, and the numbers of bishops across the system continues to morph and evolve,” Marden said later, “the New England Annual Conference is in a unique position to be part of the experimentation that’s going on across the whole system.”
While neither the College of Bishops nor the NEJ Episcopacy Committee discuss their rationale and decision-making process publicly, Bishop Easterling did share the following:
“Some might attempt to view this through a lens of some kind of punishment for the New England Conference because of their risk-taking, bold, and visionary step to lift leaders from their conference who are queer, leaders from their conference who do not fit the present disciplinary model of who might be able to come forward for the future leadership of this jurisdiction and this denomination.”
“That is not the case,” Bishop Easterling said. “I want to say it again: That is not the case.”
It is important to choose the right leader for New England at this time, Bishop Easterling said:
“They have been doing some amazing work,” she said, “even as we’ve been in this space of liminality, they have not been liminal. They have not been stagnant. They have crafted a strategic missional plan for their conference [The New England Declaration] that will continue to help them to thrive.”
New England needs a leader to walk beside them, the bishop said, “and help them to live into where they know God is calling them.”
Post-conference, New England delegates came together to talk as the other conferences met with their bishops. Dr. Williams shared some of the feelings delegates were experiencing as the initial shock wore off.
“The scripture says we grieve but not as those without hope,” he said, “so we know that things will be fine in the end, and we’re equipped in New England to work through this, but we’re sad, we’re frustrated, we’re angry that we’re the only conference that is in this position.”
“We’ve been grieving, in many ways, since 2019,” he said, “and this has added to the grief, because we still don’t have closure to this process.”
Bishop Easterling had asked the rest of the NEJ to recognize the NE Delegation’s pain, and asked those assembled to stand and face the NE delegates and stretch out hands to them as she prayed.
“We know that right now, even in the heaviness of this moment, your hands are holding this New England delegation and those who are at home and didn’t even have the benefit of that brief meeting with the College [of Bishops] this morning, who are hearing this for the first time. Be a balm. Be a salve.”
“You are the great alchemist,” the bishop said. “You can take this moment and do something transformative with it, do something amazing with it, do something unbelievable with it, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear.”
Bishop Easterling emphasized that the College would meet with the NEAC Committee on Episcopacy “as quickly as possible.”
“The College found out at just before 5 am that it would be necessary for us to come together to discern a coverage model for the New England Annual Conference,” she said. “We rose and began immediately and began to discern who the right servant leader or servant leaders would be to carry this great, risk-taking bold conference into their future.”
Marden confirmed that a meeting is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 6. Following that consultation with the committee, the NEJ bishops will make a recommendation to the Council of Bishops for its approval.
“They [NEJ bishops] are promptly and intentionally listening to our input,” said Marden, adding that she expects that the bishop will be named by next week.
“While this means we wait a few more days for clarity,” she said. “It also creates an incredible opportunity for the New England Annual Conference to navigate its priorities, goals and its preparation for both this episcopal leader and the next episcopal leader who will come in 2024.”
“Once we know who the new bishop is,” said Dr. Williams. “We’ll collaborate with that bishop - the Cabinet, the Vision Forward Team, the Delegation and the entire Annual Conference - as we might continue to imagine what God is doing for us in this time.”
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, whose retirement was certified at this jurisdictional conference, will continue to serve until Dec. 31, 2022.
These assignments begin Jan. 1 and continue until Aug. 31, 2024.
Bishop John R. Schol: Greater New Jersey Area/Eastern Pennsylvania Conference coverage
Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton: New York Area
Bishop Bishop Héctor A. Burgos-Núñez: Upper New York Area
Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling: Baltimore Washington Area/Peninsula Delaware Conference coverage
Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi Pittsburgh Area (Western Pennsylvania Conference)
Bishop Sandra L. Steiner Ball: West Virginia Area
Bishop Moore-Koikoi and Bishop Steiner Ball share coverage of the Susquehanna Conference