On the Floor in Choosing a New Bishop
Steve Dennie, Director of Communications
The business meeting of the US National Conference lasted throughout the morning and afternoon of Thursday, July 16. Several major proposals were on the docket. But the issue foremost in people’s hearts and minds was the resignation of Bishop Phil Whipple, which had occurred just one week before on July 8. What happened? And where would we go from here?
This issue was scheduled early in the business meeting—in fact, the first item of business after the preliminaries. The end result was the appointment of a new bishop.
The business session began with a hot breakfast for all delegates, sponsored by Logos Bible Software. There was some singing, then a brief presentation from Logos about the latest version of their software.
Around 9:30, the business session began. These persons served as officers:
- Chairman: Todd Fetters, director of National Ministries.
- Assistant chairman: Bishop Emeritus Paul Hirschy.
- Recording secretary: Rocky Spear, pastor of Mongul UB church (Shippensburg, Pa.).
- Parliamentarian: Craig Burkholder, pastor of Hudson UB church (Hudson, Ind.).
Into Executive Session
After approving the Rules & Procedures to govern the meeting, Todd Fetters turned the chair over to Paul Hirschy to process approval of the Executive Leadership Team minutes from the past two years—four regular meetings, plus a variety of decisions handled through online voting.
Jason Garwood, pastor of Colwood UB church (Caro, Mich.), asked if there would be some explanation of the resignation of Bishop Whipple. It was, indeed, the appropriate time for that.
Two members of the 2013-2015 ELT came forward. Darwin Dunten, pastor of Findlay First UB (Findlay, Ohio), moved that the conference go into executive session, with only delegates and advisory members present. All other persons were asked to leave the room, and they did. Then Gary Dilley, pastor of College Park UB church (Huntington, Ind.), read a letter on behalf of the ELT about the circumstances surrounding the bishop’s resignation. There were questions and responses. Nothing was recorded in the minutes.
Bishop Hirschy closed the executive session at 10:30 with prayer. After a break, the delegates reconvened at 10:45. They quickly approved the work of the ELT.
Discussion continued about where to go from here. Eventually, this motion was made by Steve Fish, Teaching Pastor at Emmanuel Community Church (Fort Wayne, Ind.):
“I move the United Brethren National Conference affirm the ELT’s decision to appoint Todd Fetters as the Interim Bishop, and that this body determine that time-frame to begin on August 7, 2015, until the meeting of the next United Brethren National Conference in 2017.”
So, Todd Fetters would essentially serve the remainder of Bishop Whipple’s unexpired term, starting August 7 and continuing until a bishop was formally elected at the 2017 US National Conference.
There was discussion about what title to use—“interim bishop,” or something else. The Discipline mentioned appointing an “acting bishop.” Jim Bolich, senior pastor of Prince Street UB church (Shippensburg, Pa.), made a motion to drop “interim” and just use “bishop.” A number of people voted for this amendment, but it lost on a much stronger voice vote.
Todd Fetters was asked to comment on what title he preferred. He said he felt ambivalent. He understood that regardless of what title was used, it would carry the same weight. He also recognized that he would be serving an interim term, not an elected term. Later in the meeting, he said, “To have an asterisk by my title–that’s fine. I’m happy to serve in that capacity. I’m okay with it, because it’s a great reminder of who I have to be. I’m all right with that, and I want you to be all right with that.”
Dan Paternoster (layperson, Fowlerville, Mich.) said “interim” didn’t make the position smaller, but identified the position while reserving the term “bishop” for persons elected to that position.
At 11:05, a vote was taken on Steve Fish’s motion, which remained in its original form after several attempted amendments. It passed with only one dissent.
We had a new bishop.
Bishop Ramsey’s Prayer
Paul Hirschy asked Bishop Emeritus Ron Ramsey to come to the podium and pray for Todd Fetters. As he stood at the podium, with Todd seated at the table behind him, Bishop Ramsey said, “If I’m going to pray for Todd, I’d like to have my hand on him.” There was laughter and applause throughout the room. Todd then came to the podium and stood beside Bishop Ramsey, who placed his right hand on Todd’s shoulder and prayed:
Eternal God and Father, we have come to a point in our national conference, in our denomination, that probably nobody has enjoyed. But we also thank you for your sovereignty in bringing to us the skills and capabilities to take care of the position, and to serve the church in a wonderful way. I thank you for Todd. I thank you for his life, I thank you for his witness, I thank you for his testimony, and most of all I thank you for the consistent way he has walked in the way of the Lord and the way of the Word. And I pray that as he assumes this new position, that those things will not change.
Help him, Lord, to face the discouraging things without destroying him. Help him to accept the victories and wins without getting a big head. But Lord, I just pray you would be with him and strengthen and empower him for this awesome responsibility. Thank you for the years I’ve known him; I’ve known him to be honest and true and faithful. I pray that your Spirit would be upon him to continue moving him and directing him in that kind of fashion. In the strong name of Jesus I pray, amen.
Bishop Ramsey then told the conference, “Let me just say one thing. I think the denomination, for the next two years, will be in very capable hands.”
Remarks from the New Bishop
After Bishop Ramsey’s prayer, Todd Fetters made the following remarks (with slight editing) to the conference.
I’m not an alliterator when I do messages. I’m just not big on it. It’s a lot of work to come up with points that all have the same letter. And yet, I’m going to do it right here, right now.
Let me just say, the events that you in executive session have heard and that we walked through—they are heart-breaking. I want to speak on behalf of the national office. It’s been a heart-rending, heart-challenging season for us. And yet, I think as you’ve looked at the national staff just in the last 24 hours, you’ve seen that they came to work, and they came to help, and they came to serve the church. I’m grateful for their ability to process challenging, difficult, heart-rending decisions and still come to do this, knowing that our calling is to Jesus Christ and to His Church, and to help all of us point in that direction of our Lord and Savior. So would you just thank our national office staff.
We have had the opportunity to say it to Bishop Phil and to Sandy, that we love them and enjoyed working with them, and we have enjoyed working for our bishop. We will be continuing to pray for them, and we will continue to serve in the vein that he has led us to this point.So the first H is heart-breaking.
Let me follow that up by saying I am humbled by this body’s confidence in me. I walk into the office every day and go down a long hallway on purpose. The hallway into the office from the back door is a whole long line of bishops’ pictures. Usually I’m troubled by the fact that most of them are cockeyed, and I sort of tilt them back into place. Whether that’s a message from the Lord or not, I don’t know.
But as a kid growing up in the United Brethren church, and not far from headquarters, those are the people I knew as bishop. Those have always been individuals that I was taught to respect, and whom I learned to respect. I’m humbled to follow in that line for these two years.
When I think in terms of our church, I think in terms of the modern era. One of the key parts of our modern era is when we went to one bishop, and that was Bishop Ray Seilhamer in 1993. He served us with a vision for two things—healthy churches, and church planting. A big part of that was endowing for church planting. So he got us in mind for healthy churches and planting churches. His illustration was a two-winged plane—which, by the way, is the only kind of plane I would want to fly.
And then following Bishop Seilhamer was Bishop Paul Hirschy, who has given us leadership in transition to who we are. Between 2001 and 2005, we processed whether or not we wanted to be United Brethren, and we cinched it down. We are United Brethren. That’s who we are going to be. That’s what we want to be. So we said in 2005, this is who we are.
At that national conference, we had a sea change in our structure, our organization. Ron Ramsey was handed the baton to make sense out of something we just sort of threw up in the air to some degree and said, “Make this work.” And we’ve been making this work.
The other thing that Bishop Ramsey brought to the table was a renewed commitment to the Great Commission as our commission. Growing healthy churches was a big part of where we were going. And so, again, when you make a big decision to say this is who we are and this is what we are going to be about as the United Brethren Church, we had the right leader at that moment to say, “Simplistically, it’s about the Gospel—about getting people to hear the Gospel and to yield their lives to him.”
And so in the succession in this modern era, we got to that point where we said, “We are United Brethren, and we are committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the Great Commission. That’s what we are called to do.”
Then the baton was handed off to Bishop Phil Whipple. For the last six years, in a volatile culture when it comes to Christianity, he helped us cinch down what we are all about in upholding that one name once more—that we are All for Christ. That’s what we are about. Unashamedly, All for Christ. I look forward to keeping that theme, and the themes that got us to that point, as we move forward.
So I’m heart-broken in the circumstances we are in. I’m humbled by your trust. And I’m hopeful that we will work together in collaboration for the great and glorious Gospel that is ours, given to us by Jesus Christ.
Thank you, folks. It’s been my privilege to serve with our staff and with our bishop and with you. I look forward to what the Lord wants to do in the United Brethren church during the next two years.