The Role of Bishop

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By Bishop Michael Rinehart

What is a bishop? What does a bishop do? You would think after ten years I would have a snappy answer. Actually, I have several. “A player who moved diagonally.” Sometimes that gets a chuckle, but it turns out that these days, people know more about the church than chess. “I care for a little over a hundred churches and their leaders.” This has turned out to be the shortest answer that connects.

At the ten-year mark, it seems like a good time to reflect on this role. I have found, how I describe this, often depends on who is asking. Sometimes the question comes from folks who have no relationship with a church. They genuinely have no idea. Other times, it comes from Lutherans who know what a bishop is, sort of, but are really asking what kinds of things I find myself doing from day to day.

This article is an attempt at a more nuanced answer to the question for those reading Connections, who I assume have a deeper than average understanding of the church.


The Greek word for bishop, episkopos, simply means overseer. It can also be translated “superintendent.” You can see the word “scope” in there. An episkopos literally looks over or watches over something. Luther says, if the Bible hadn’t mentioned bishops, the church would have had to invent them for the sake of order.

In the small first century church of the Bible, bishop is virtually interchangeable with pastor. In Philippians 1:1, Paul greets all “Bishops and deacons.” 1 Timothy 3 describes the qualifications for bishops and deacons. Titus 1:5 ff appears to use presbyter (elder) and bishop (overseer) interchangeably.

Jerome (347-420 AD) said that Presbyters appointed Bishops to provide leadership and to prevent schism in the church. In other words, bishops were to provide leadership and unity.

Fast forward to the Reformation, and Bishops are a very different thing. The office of bishop is a public office that is often combined with the civic power and responsibility of a prince. This mixing of church and state is highly problematic. One who must lead with the accoutrements of secular power, has great difficulty shepherding a flock into a life of prayer, simplicity and humility. The Reformers bemoaned how the bishops had neglected the churches and the gospel to tend to civic affairs. So, their context is also much different than ours today. In both contexts, the early church and the Reformation, its apples and oranges.

How could anyone be a bishop if he does not ride a high horse and does not let himself be called gracious lord, which is enough by itself to create a bishop? But here one can see that St. Paul calls all those who offer the word and sacrament to the people “bishop,” just as ministers and curates do now. —Against The Spiritual Estate of the Pope and Bishops (LW 39:281-282)

Nevertheless, the Lutheran Confessions are helpful. They say that the function of a bishop is to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments in accordance with the gospel. In other words, Melanchthon says, the roles of bishop and pastor are nearly identical. “What does a bishop do,” says Melanchthon, “that pastor does not do?” Confirmations and ordinations. And even those, he says, can be delegated out. So, for the reformers, a bishop is simply a pastor with a different kind of parish and a different call.

So, Bishops should preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, provide leadership, and work for unity. That’s all.


Fast forward to today. Episkopos is translated and understood differently in the various churches. Presbyterians have a General Presbyter. Some churches have superintendents. Some have presidents. Some have bishops. Even those who use the same word have differing roles. Some bishops assign pastors to churches. Others, like in our polity, oversee the screening and selection of candidates, so that congregations can elect. Some chair boards of religious schools and hospitals.

In our polity, the role of bishop is laid out in the synod constitution. If you want a detailed, technical list of the bishop’s duties, here you go. The list is dizzying:

†S8.12. As this synod’s pastor, the bishop shall be an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament who shall:

  1. Preach, teach, and administer the sacraments in accord with the Confession of Faith of this church.
  2. Have primary responsibility for the ministry of Word and Sacrament in this synod and its congregations, providing pastoral care and leadership for this synod, its congregations, its ordained ministers, and its other rostered leaders.
  3. Exercise solely this church’s power to ordain (or provide for the ordination by another synodical bishop of) approved candidates who have received and accepted a properly issued, duly attested letter of call for the office of ordained ministry (and as provided in the bylaws of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).
  4. Commission (or provide for the commissioning of) approved candidates who have received and accepted a properly issued, duly attested letter of call for service as associates in ministry; consecrate (or provide for the consecration of) approved candidates who have received and accepted a properly issued, duly attested letter of call for service as deaconesses; and consecrate (or provide for the consecration of) approved candidates who have received and accepted a properly issued, duly attested letter of call for service as diaconal ministers of this church.
  5. Attest letters of call for persons called to serve congregations in the synod, letters of call for persons called by the Synod Council, and letters of call for persons on the roster of this synod called by the Church Council. f. Install (or provide for the installation of):

1)  the pastors of all congregations of this synod;

2)  ordained ministers called to extraparish service within this synod; and

3)  persons serving in the other rostered ministries within this synod.

  1. Exercise leadership in the mission of this church and in so doing:

1) Interpret and advocate the mission and theology of the whole church;

2) Lead in fostering support for and commitment to the mission of this church within this synod;

3) Coordinate the use of the resources available to this synod as it seeks to promote the health of this church’s life and witness in the areas served by this synod;

4) Submit a report to each regular meeting of the Synod Assembly concerning the synod’s life and work; and

5) Advise and counsel this synod’s related institutions and organizations.

  1. Practice leadership in strengthening the unity of the Church and in so doing:

1) Exercise oversight of the preaching, teaching, and administration of the sacraments within this synod in accord with the Confession of Faith of this church;

2) Be responsible for administering the constitutionally established processes for the resolution of controversies and for the discipline of ordained ministers, other rostered leaders, and congregations of this synod;

3) Be the chief ecumenical officer of this synod;

4) Consult regularly with other synodical bishops and the Conference of Bishops;

5) Foster awareness of other churches throughout the Lutheran world communion and, where appropriate, engage in contact with leaders of those churches;

6) Cultivate communion in faith and mission with appropriate Christian judicatory leaders functioning within the territory of this synod; and

7) Be ex officio a member of the Churchwide Assembly.

  1. Oversee and administer the work of this synod and in so doing:

1) Serve as the president of the synod corporation and be the chief executive and administrative officer of this synod, who is authorized and empowered, in the name of this synod, to sign deeds or other instruments and to affix the seal of this synod;

2) Preside at all meetings of the Synod Assembly and provide for the preparation of the agenda for the Synod Assembly, Synod Council, and the council’s Executive Committee;

3) Ensure that the constitution and bylaws of the synod and of the churchwide organization are duly observed within this synod, and that the actions of the synod in conformity therewith are carried into effect;

4) Exercise supervision over the work of the other officers.

5) Coordinate the work of all synodical staff members;

6) Appoint all committees for which provision is not otherwise made;

7) Be a member of all committees and any other organizational units of the synod, except as otherwise provided in this constitution;

8) Provide for preparation and maintenance of synodical rosters containing:

  1. a) the names and addresses of all ordained ministers of this synod and a record of the calls under which they are serving or the date on which they become retired or disabled; and
  2. b) the names and addresses of all other rostered persons of this synod and a record of the positions to which they have been called or the date on which they become retired or disabled;

9) Annually bring to the attention of the Synod Council the names of all rostered persons on leave from call or engaged in approved graduate study in conformity with the constitution, bylaws, and continuing resolutions of this church and pursuant to prior action of this synod through the Synod Council;

10) Provide for prompt reporting to the secretary of this church of:

  1. a) additions to and subtractions from the rosters of this synod and the register of congregations;
  2. b) the issuance of certificates of transfer for rostered persons in good standing who have received and accepted a properly issued, duly attested, regular letter of call under the jurisdiction of another synod; and
  3. c) the entrance of the names of such persons for whom proper certificates of transfer have been received;

11) Provide for preparation and maintenance of a register of the congregations of this synod and the names of the laypersons who have been elected to represent them; and

12) Appoint a statistician of the synod, who shall secure the parochial reports of the congregations and make the reports available to the secretary of this church for collation, analysis, and distribution of the statistical summaries to this synod and the other synods of this church.

You’d have to be crazy to let your name go forward for something like that, right? Sometimes people say to me, “I wouldn’t have your job for the world.” I respond, “That makes two of us.”

Pastor to the pastors

One final thought. My dad always said the bishop was “Pastor to the pastors.” I believe this is true, though not always in the way people think. Our mental picture of the pastor is often the small church pastor making all the house calls and hospital calls. The bishop is pastor more like a a large church pastor. My first call congregation had 4,000 members. Pastor Bill Waxenberg didn’t visit everyone. Couldn’t possibly. He oversaw (episkopos) pastoral care through a network of hospital visitors (lay and clergy), Stephens Ministers and small groups. There was no way to be present for every surgery, home communion and so on. This kind of care can be superb. The whole body works together, as Paul says, rather than running the wheels off one person.

In a synod that has 77 counties/parishes in two states, a chaplaincy model would be impossible. If someone is rushed into the emergency room in New Orleans, it’s hard to be there. Giving homebound communion to retired pastors is not in the cards. Practically, pastoral care for retired pastors is carried out by the pastor of their home congregation, who they see every Sunday. The synod is a congregation of 112 congregations with 160 pastors.

Actually, the constitution never says the bishop is Pastor to the pastors. It says the bishop is “this synod’s pastor.” This means the bishop is pastor to the pastors and to the congregations. A pastor is not just a caregiver, but also a protector. The shepherd’s staff is used to ward off predators. At times in my tenure, I have had to protect pastors from congregations. At other times, I have had to protect congregations from pastors. It’s part of the job. My least favorite, but an important part.


I remind myself frequently that I’m a pastor with a specialized call. It is a joy, a privilege and a challenge. I’ve lost count of the mistakes I’ve made and dumb things I’ve said. I apologize.

I take comfort that my role is pastoral: Preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, provide leadership, work for unity. I find great joy in this work. Most of the time I can see through the barrage of tasks to the heart of things. My energy is high, even in the tough times, like hurricane recovery assistance and a death in the family. I am deeply grateful for your prayers and the prayers of your congregation. They mean more than you can know.