EPISODE 008: Rev. Gary Keene spent 23 years in ministry as a clergy person working alongside Bishops in the United Methodist Church; as a Council Director, Director of Connectional Ministries, and Assistant to the Bishop, he served in ministry alongside episcopal leaders in the church. From that unique, long perspective, he offers insight about the leadership we need most from our Bishops, and what difference it makes in our local congregations. Now retired, Gary also served as a pastor of local congregations, including, finally, Camarillo UMC.
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TranscriptMolly: In our United Methodist Church we call our Bishops episcopal leaders. This comes from a Greek word, episkope, which means to give oversight to or supervise.
Much of our structure is borrowed from our ancestors in the Anglican Church and traditions, but our United Methodist structure also borrows heavily from US American government structure. Our Episcopal leaders function as a sort of executive branch in the Church, filling distinctive leadership roles and providing important leadership.
For most of us in local churches, we think of bishops primarily in some of the powers they most clearly have, that have significant impact on all of us. They have power and authority over appointing pastors to local churches, and presiding at the annual conference. The role of a bishop, as it’s practiced, as it has happened or could in the future, is continually evolving and shifting in the midst of moments of denominational change.
And at this moment, in the United Methodist Church, as we continue to wait for a General Conference in 2024, as congregations like mine seek ways to further deepen our commitment to ministry with and for LGBTQ+ persons in our communities, families, and congregations, we have before us a number of choices.
I’m Reverend Molly Veter, the Senior Pastor at Westwood United Methodist Church in Los Angeles, and it’s my privilege to welcome you to this episode of “Where Do We Go from Here, UMC?” Occasioned by our upcoming jurisdictional conferences, occasions when we will elect new bishops for the work of the Church, as I prepare to participate in our Western Jurisdiction Jurisdictional Conference, I wanted to understand a little bit more about the work of a bishop, and what difference it makes for our local churches.
There’s no one I could think of better suited to answer that set of questions than my friend and colleague Gary Keene. For more than 2 decades, as a clergy person, he has served in roles that walk right alongside bishops in conference office leadership roles. He has seen up close the work of a bishop–it’s distinctive possibilities, and limitations as we seek to be the Church together.
So thank you for joining me for these moments of conversation with Gary Keene.
Molly: Glad to have a chance to sit down with you, Gary. You are on my list of people who know more than average about bishops. You have spent a vast quantity of years, something like 23 years, working in conference leadership jobs, that have shifted in title: Council Director, Director of Connectional Ministries, Assistant to the Bishop. With 4 different Bishops in 3 different conferences. You’ve been up close, in a way that many of us have not, to the work of a bishop.
So as we’re getting ready for a jurisdictional conference this year, what should we know about bishops?
Gary: What I would observe about the Bishop’s role is: number one, even though it serves ostensibly at the sort of the top of the pyramid if you use a hierarchical model for our institution, and we imagine that it has a lot of power, it really doesn’t. The episcopal office has very limited formal powers given our polity, and you know, as some folks may know, that’s because our polity was written and developed as sort of a mirror image of the Federal governmental system of an executive branch, and a judicial branch, and a legislative branch, and the bishops function within that executive branch.
But it’s a very distributed power. One of the things that I would come back to again talk about is the role of the Council of Bishop’s where all the bishops of the church sit together and seek to give a different leadership for the Church. But the role really has very few things that can straight up do without asking somebody else for consultation or votes, or anything like that.
Molly: In the last episode, I interviewed Bishop Hagiya and he’s got this diagram he uses that has a inverted pyramid or inverted triangle–where the bishops, the conference staff is at the bottom really enabling not only the churches, but at the top the world or the kingdom of God. But still it’s like a it’s a small seat at the bottom, whether you put it at the top or at the bottom, it’s a particular one.
Gary: So within that framework, then I think that the quickest answer to the question of what difference does a bishop make in the life of a local congregation of the work It’s trying to do? The best answer is one of the oldest answers I’ve heard–it goes way back to a lay woman in Chester, Montana, up in the Canadian border.
And you may know her, Molly.
Molly: I think I do know Margaret!
Gary: Margaret Novak, a true disciple who has really given the best of her life on all fronts: as a mom, as a business owner, as a member of her local congregation, and as an active participant in the connection ministries of the church. So back when we were wrestling with these kind of questions? You know one of the things that she’s one of the things she said in response to basically the same question, “What difference does a bishop make?” or “Why do I have to go to jurisdictional conference and burn time away from my family to try and peg somebody in this role?”
As she very succinctly put it, all the Bishop has to do is just send me a good pastor, right? Just just give us a good pastor. Could you do that? We won’t ask for anything else. Just send us a good pastor. That is the clear, direct responsibility and authority of a bishop, to make that appointment.
To my mind what that illuminates is, and one of the things we often say, in the settings where we have many a lot of people participating in the life of the Church, the system of the Church. We want to say, based on our conviction about baptism, is that everybody is important, and indeed, everybody is important. But some people are strategic, which is to say, they are in a function or a place, formally, that’s catalytic to the whole you know the old school example is Paul Revere. There was very specific reasons why he was chosen and took on that role to sound the alarm.
And it had to do with that people knew him–he knew people, he knew where they were. He was able to make a strategic difference at that time and in that place in history.
Molly: Is that because the role asks you to be responsible to a larger area–it’s charged with having that view of not, you know, primarily the local church, but sort of the church in like a regional basis, and in connection to the worldwide church. Is that part of it–that the assignment for the bishop is broad geographically? And so to have someone that’s keeping that view in focus?
Gary: Yeah, yeah, and that would be what I was aiming for. I think it’s evident for you as a pastor in a local congregation in the same way. I mean, when you’re appointed there as a pastor, your appointment is not to the congregation of Westwood UMC, it is to the Westwood Charge–that is the charge point of ministry for the body of the Church in this particular place and in this particular time.
So you represent in your role visibly, tangibly, and incarnationally, Sunday by Sunday, the broader Church as a whole, the whole of the body of Christ.
So you know, over time since doing a lot of writing and communication stuff on behalf of the Bishop’s office, and the Conference, I got so I was really rigid about being clear about when I use small “c” church versus capital “C” Church. That is, it is indeed the role of the Bishop to embody at the sort of the other end of the spectrum, if you will, the body of the whole church, that wholeness that we are, that it, that the body of the Church is much more than just any one place. In the same way, that someone who comes into the life of the church at the congregational level–I know that would be a typical way for people to enter into the whole of the body of Christ–and what is the arc of their transformation and development through either organically and naturally becoming a part of the community, or intentionally, through membership classes, and whatever that might be.
Whatever need they had that brought them through the door into the life of that congregation, eventually, and ideally, they discover that “It’s not all about me.” Is it about our connection in my relationship with others. Our relationship with “who is my neighbor” and all the world is, you know, “the world’s my parish.”
Everyone is my neighbor, so that to continually, for this role to continually give voice to that in a hopefully a transformative and visionary way. That we are part so much more than just ourselves and in that is our hope our strength and everything we need to be who we are called to be, and call to be as a part of the of the body of the whole. Which is, you know, that’s not an easy thing to brand. It’s not an easy thing to to encapsulate so quickly that people get it right away.
The shortest phrase for my mind is they are the spiritual and temporal leader of the basic body of the Methodist Church. In our in our denomination in our polity the basic body of the Church is the Conference, so that collection of congregations. They’re the spiritual and temporal leader in the same way that a local pastor is the spiritual and temporal leader of an individual congregation. They’re also spiritual and temporal leader for the whole of the Church.
And so one of the common laments, both about bishops and I would say among bishops amongst themselves, is, they live with their feet in 2 worlds. One is the Annual Conference where they have direct responsibility as sort of the chief, the chief pastor, in the best sense of the word. But they’re also participating in the leadership of the entire body of of the Church as well as representing the Church in so so many ways, you know.
So for a bishop coming in and coming in in the morning to sit down at the desk as if that was an a normal pattern–You know the the full and detailed list of everything they’re supposed to do that day runs way off the edge of the desk. From a management perspective, the first thing they’re gonna do is decide what’s not gonna get done today. What’s just –I just know it’s not gonna happen, and to try and get that down to I’m going to try and get these 2 3 4 5 things done, knowing full well that given the nature of the role, something weird is gonna come through the door here–sometimes at 2 or 3 different times–and disrupt my best laid plans. And that’s just you know, pick one, either that’s the list for Conference work or it’s the list for the representational and denominational work. So they’re always being pulled, always trying to live in both these places, and connect them and make them whole.
What I’ve observed over time, then, is in the face of sort of that continuing avalanche or tidal wave, of things that must be done, as well as the things that should be done or we would want for them to be doing, is with time and with healthy attitude and healthy guidance, what I’ve observed is Bishops have to come to discover that the only way they can do this job is not, by, you know, kind of becoming a Super Player of Whack-A-Mole trying to get all the administrative overhead pieces done, all the temporal leadership pieces done.
The focus shifts and deepens around the spiritual role for their own wellbeing. And then, by expressing that and calling for that and setting the table for that, primarily with the team of the cabinet, you know, that’s the closest circle of responsibility. Ideally, in a perfect world, whatever the structure is in a Conference for it’s connectional table, or it’s Council, whatever the matter, that’s also a place where they can genuinely, directly be a spiritual leader. I think that’s where it makes a difference. Because it allows them to claim the core of what I think we have to be about as the Church, and that is to stay in love with God.
If somebody isn’t calling us to that constantly, we’ll get pulled apart the same way, you know. There’s there’s plenty of work to do in terms of: do no harm. You know, a lot of the work is figuring out how to stop the bad stuff from happening and putting out the fires that are always always erupting. There’s plenty of that work to do.
To do all the good we can all the time–much of our Conference structure is set up, you know, through our various committees and agencies to try and be moving forward on the progressive issues. There’s an endless variety of those. So we can be trying to be proactive in that way. You know we’re defensive on the one, and we’re proactive on the other.
But it’s the “staying in love with God.” Where are we giving genuine time, attention, and energy to that? And the best of our episcopal leaders have a deeply rooted, nurturing sense of their own spiritual identity, their right relationship with those around them, and how to model that, speak that, and guide others into it. Principally starting with the clergy–that’s why, you know, my grief is bishops, even the best ones, rarely get to have enough real, transformative face time with their clergy, who are those people we want in the local pulpit, doing exactly that same work at the local level. Being a centered spiritual leader, inviting others into deepening their spiritual journeys.
So it’s an impossible job. But it’s a role that is necessary in the fullness of the body of the Church. Over time, I’ve said over and over again–and probably one of the most helpful Scriptures descriptions to us–is where Paul says the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of it.” Even can’t say we have no need of the episcopal office. It is a part of the body and it’s a strategic part of the body.
I wish Paul had known a little bit more about the actual bodily functions. He would have said, the the head cannot say to the pancreas, “We have no need you.” You know how important your pancreas is?!? You would give it a lot more respect, right?
Molly: As you were talking, I was just trying to think of metaphors that might describe this function that you’re painting of the Bishop, and to some extent I hear you describing something like something like a filter, to receive the administrative tasks and run them through a filter–of what of this is necessary, and what helps us do the work of the Church, of staying in love with God. What grounds us. So maybe the liver? I don’t know. It’s not perfect. It’s an imperfect metaphor
I’m curious if you would have a handle on what things you think the office of Bishop can do particularly well, that we should let do that.
And what things someone else needs to do that would be helpful. There’s limits, right? Like the Bishop’s not the doer-of-all-the-things, right? It’s a particular role that can do a piece of it. But I’m guessing it is also most fruitful when there’s other folks alongside doing things. Sometimes we just defer like we’ll let the Bishop, fix all our problems. If you had a magic wand, and you could give capabilities to…
Gary: l tell you how I hear the question, which is not like time management, but human resources.
So I would say that you know the fastest, quickest, best thing that can be done for any Bishop is to give them a small army of people to delegate stuff to carry that carry that authority of the office with them, and the knowledge necessary to accomplish that. Well that ain’t, gonna happen.
One of the things that has continuously been squeezed over time in every Annual Conference, without any doubt, is essentially the connectional ministry staff. I’ll just kind of plant my flag and do my old man rant. We always find reasons to justify the expense for everything related to Trustees and Finance. When it comes to Sunday school, youth ministries, choir, worship leadership, all of a sudden that’s where we squeeze the budget, right? So the same is true at the connection level.
It’s fuzzier more ambiguous, difficult to quantify results. What is it that these things do on our behalf that fulfill our mission as the Church?
And I guess what I would say is well we’ll never know because we’ve never really invested in it right. We’ve never really said this is strategically important to our effectiveness in the mission of the church. We’ll fund that in order to make it happen. Bishops can’t spend time on spiritual retreat retreats with their district clergy when they have got to slog through admirative, very often, legally combustible issues that require the authority of their office to exercise.
It’s kind of an answer, I hope?
Molly: I’ll take it. You grew up in Michigan–what’s your home church? Did you grow up in the church?
Gary: I did grow up in the church–Kalamazoo First Church, Kalamazoo, which was, you know, the equivalent would be San Diego First Church here in this conference. It was a big, wonderful, glorious church. We had a big, dynamic youth program. There’s no way to tell my story without telling the story of that church and its ministries.
And I to get it in there: It’s connectional sensibilities. So you know, a transformative experience for me, in one summer, was to go to District Youth Camp, and that’s where I felt a call to ministry. Two weeks later, our local church participated in one of the first of the Appalachia Service Projects down in Kentucky, absolutely life changing. I basically understood from my call to ministry, that the nature of ministry was to love, and seeing that, yes, Appalachia Service Project, like, this is how you love–you love these people who have the least of anything.
Then I went to Conference Camp as a leader and understood, “Oh, this is how these things even happen– other people get together so that people like me can come into the life of the Church.”
At that time, I originally thought I wanted to be a music director, a conductor. So our Associate Pastor was the Dean of a junior high music camp, which was mostly a choral camp.
And I said, well, let me do the instruments. And so I had, like, you know, 10 kids on snare drums and 4 flutes, and that was my band, you know.
But all of those were a consequence of something that was beyond the local church and feeding that regenerative cycle of going and coming in–getting energy and bringing it back into the life of the church and that’s what I grew up on.
Molly: So for you is the connectional church a strategic way to save ourselves from isolation and individualism? What would you describe as the, like, if you were gonna give a short tag line for the gifts if offers us?
Gary: Oddly enough, I think the keyword is accountability. By that I mean, when you think of the earliest incarnation of the Church was the Wesleyan Covenant Groups.
The accountability groups where, you know, a relatively small group of people came together and held one another accountable in their spiritual lives and the discipleship, right?
So there was direct knowledge from, and the sense of the responsibility to. If I’m gonna say I’m a Christian and a Methodist, then this is what it means, and how am I doing that?
The accountability group existed to a degree, and now I would say, you know the ideal version. You know, any congregation is essentially a whole lot of little accountability groups. We call them Finance Committee or the Kitchen Committee or whatever. But it’s basically where people know one another directly, and are kind of keeping tabs, and helping one another walk the walk.
The unique special strategic function of our connectional system is that it makes every congregation an accountability group with other congregations. It’s basically a way in which other congregations–we hold ourselves accountable to: What does it mean when we say we are Christians? And what does it mean when we say we’re Methodists?
I would say that’s my great lament and challenge and charge is: in the past, we failed to do that well, and that’s a part of why the church is so divisive.
We failed to hold ourselves accountable to our spiritual well-being and instead, we’re holding ourselves accountable to a lot over the stuff that has become idolatrous within the church.
I have personal real issues with Christian nationalism and I think that’s because of a lack of accountability, a lack of a spiritual accountability to one another.
Molly: I’m also troubled by the ways, in particular, General Conference in 2019 took us, like, all the way over the cliff, in terms of reworking “accountability” from a mutual holding one another up to the gospel to offer sort of correction and encouragement as we all with humility, try to reach the Gospel. And weaponized it for the sake of persecuting and prosecuting LGBTQ+ clergy and clergy who officiate their weddings. We just lifted out 2 things and said, This is a unique form of sort of prosecutorial, I don’t know, penalty. It just flattened our understanding of accountability, and narrowed it.
And so, then, and we really let Conservatives in the church overtake the idea of accountability, because they for a long time been accusing us in the West–rebel Bishops–of not honoring the Book of Discipline, because, our bishops have not enforced a couple of fairly narrow specific rules related to prohibiting LGBTQ+ clergy and weddings in our churches. But they’ve acted like they understand accountability, and we’re out of accountability.
As if the whole of accountability could be summed up on your faithfulness to these 2 rules, which is just such a thin and flattened view of things.
Gary: Yeah, and that’s where I would say, one of the things on the long run of our conversation that I wanted to come around to, as we as we’re looking at this Jurisdictional Conference where we’re going to bring in some new Bishops. There are definitely some characteristics for us here in the West that have always been unique, and I would say, need to–it’s unfortunate that they’re unique–we need to continue to sustain that. But probably one of the things that used to be presumed, we can no longer obviously presume, is: One of the key functions, again, because of the polity of the Church distributes that executive power within the Council of Bishops, so when they sit together at that table, ostensibly they are to embody that strategic leadership function relative to the whole Church. Although they have almost no formal mechanical levers or devices to accomplish that. It’s really by the influence of their spiritual witness together, that they might be able to lead the church.
So persons in that role, I would say: you’re gonna have to be even both humble at heart, but also convicted in their hearts about, “What is the role of the church?” And the necessity of–we have got to find ways to do this together, to be able to move us forward. Because that’s the role of the Church, to do that, relative to the world.
You know Jesus. The hardest words, but most essential words, were where Jesus says, to paraphrase, the kingdom is not of this world. You know, all of the means and devices of this world do not serve the spiritual well-being and identity of us either individually or collectively. So they have to be able to speak and embody a different way of being the world. So when they’re around a table, they gotta be ready–they gotta know that. That that’s the task ahead.
Molly: I know we’re close to our end of our time together. But I don’t want to not say something about the sort of prophetic social justice witness of the office of bishop and its importance. I’m thinking back about Bishop Swenson, who you named and worked with, who has been one of the bishops who, early on stepped out in a clear articulation of a call to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, but she–I think, at the beginning she did it with others. There was a group of bishops at, was it 1996 General Conference in Denver? That made a proclamation together?
Gary: Formally, yeah. It was the seven. They took a lot of heat for that. But it was predominantly Bishops in the West. But that’s, you know, that’s the nature of leadership. It’s getting out ahead of things a little bit, and saying, This is what it can look like, and this is what it should look like.
Molly: I’ve appreciated that history of episcopal leadership, particularly in the West. That is out there, but not entirely alone, still in accountability to someone or something. Certainly to the Gospel. I think of participating in Bishop Oliveto’s election. Also she became the singular person, as the first openly Queer bishop, but she was elected by the community together, and it was really a sense that I my impression my experience from participating in it, was that we made that decision together collectively, as a Jurisdiction. That this was a way we were going to do this. So she’s ended up being the visible embodiment of our commitment, and a lightning rod for resistance. But I appreciate that there’s been that community accountability, even in that prophetic office of the role and office of the Bishop.
Gary: Which I would say real quickly, is a consequence of 2 things. One: scale. Simply put, the size of our Jurisdiction, and therefore the college bishops, is the right size to be able to have a genuine to have a common sensibility together. Although, you know that is that is shifted over time. Ot is definitely shifted over time and the cohort of retired bishops.
You know, I’m aware of for a long time Bishop Talbert was the sort of the Grandfather presence that held that group together in the midst of some of the tensions that were in the group As he grows over and less able to participate that it’s harder to claim but it’s so vital. A number of years ago, there was a big time consultation, sort of as it was becoming evident within the Council of Bishops that there was this fragmentation beginning to happen. A fraying that body, and they had good outside help come in. Sort of the summary moment was when they put all the papers and the reports and all this stuff aside, and they asked the guy, “Well, what do you think?” He said, “Well, it is clear,” addressing the whole Council of Bishops, “that you are all highly effective spiritual leaders. But you are not a leadership team.” Which is what they had what they needed to be.
And, you know, so that’s what we need our Bishops to be together. It’s what the church needs, and what we need at the local level. You as pastor, any pastor, cannot do ministry on your own. You’ve got to have a team around you to take that strategic role from you as a local pastor, and express that to the full scope of your charge to which you are appointed.
I’ve been around too long, I’m getting more cynical. I’m holding on the ideals and the romanticism of what an inspiring leader needs to do. It’s a rocky road ahead. I can’t be honest and say it’s, “Oh, oh, it’s all just gonna happen now.” There’s there’s some tough days ahead.
Molly: We continue to negotiate and renegotiate what it means to belong together as an institution. What the future of our connectional institution will be. Certainly our Bishops are a piece of the puzzle that will help us get there. But, I don’t know, speaking on behalf of the local church, unless we’re all together, it’s like, there’s no “there” there. It’s just…
Gary: Yeah, I mean this is a great example – just you’re doing this to raise that collective awareness of, “Yes, we’re all in it together.” That we are the body, and the body needs to be able to work together in a healthy way to do what we’re called to do as a church. That’s really valuable. I see this, what you’re doing right now, is you’re basically increasing information and circulation of the body. The nervous system is strengthened by having these kinds of conversations and making that available.
Molly: Well, then, thank you for going for this metaphorical morning jog with me, Gary. I appreciate your time and your wisdom and insight.
Gary: You bet. Blessings to you in your ministry and your people’s ministry.
Molly: Amen. Thank you.
Molly: I’m grateful to Gary for his time with us this morning, and grateful for you, for listening in, as we seek to understand more about what it means for those of us located in a variety of places who seek to be faithful to the Gospel and faithful in ministry to our communities.
I hope there’s been something in our conversation that might be of use to you, and that you will continue to be a part of the ongoing work of discerning ways to be faithful to the call of Christ and in ministry through our churches. Thanks for being with us today.
I encourage you to subscribe to this podcast wherever you watch it–to add comments and reviews, to share it with others. I hope you’ll join us back next week for another episode.
Thanks for being with us. Peace.