A Wesley scholar serving as bishop
Jones discerned that he could be of most service to denominational renewal as a theologian. He served as a professor at Perkins until 2004, when he was elected bishop.
Bishop Scott Jones, who stands in a line of Methodist ministers stretching back to his maternal great-grandfather, is a bred-in-the-bone Wesleyan.
His father, Jameson Jones, was a national United Methodist leader, and served as Dean of Duke Divinity School, as would Scott’s younger brother, L. Gregory Jones.
Bishop Jones recalls sensing a calling at 16 to “the family business” while serving on an inner-city mission in Tampa, Fla., but notes that initially he thought of the church mostly as a tool for social change.
His interest in the political dimensions of church life grew the next year when he served as a delegate for the UMC Youth Caucus to the 1970 General Convention and defeated his own father in floor debate. But even as he entered ever deeper into the councils of United Methodism, he only rarely went to church and had little personal conviction about or passion for his faith.
Jones realized something was missing when a truck driver, who picked him up while hitchhiking early in his college years, told him about his faith in Christ.
While he was never dramatically “born again,” there did come a day during his senior year when Jones realized he had indeed come to know Christ powerfully and personally.
This experience convicted him of United Methodism’s need for spiritual renewal, which carried over into his time at Perkins Theological Seminary. There, he finally came to understand the power and beauty of Wesleyan spirituality and began to realize that bringing spiritual revival to the church would require a deepened theological engagement with Scripture.
Jones discerned that he could be of most service to denominational renewal as a theologian. So the budding ecclesial politician found himself drawn into the world of ideas, on a journey that lasted through his doctoral studies at Southern Methodist University, when he also served at a parish outside Dallas, and on through his work as a professor at Perkins until 2004.
In books about Wesley’s use of Scripture, Wesleyan doctrine and evangelism, Jones has argued that United Methodism must recover Wesley’s insistence that the “general tenor” of Scripture lies in the “way of salvation,” by which broken sinners are called to be justified by faith and perfected in holiness.
Jones was awarded the John Wesley Fellowship as he entered his doctoral studies, and he credits the community of faith and study it afforded with sustaining his determination to finish his studies when he was feeling particularly disgusted with the aridity and abstraction of doctoral seminars.
But even as he was encouraged to see other scholars struggling to integrate a richly evangelical piety with their studies, Jones also found a community of lively debate and argument and cherished the annual Christmas conferences as “safe spaces to learn how to be an excellent scholar without fear of being attacked.”
His colleagues at A Foundation for Theological Education continued to be vital partners in ministry long after graduate school, as when he joined other Senior Fellows to form a discussion group that eventually produced United Methodism’s much-discussed mission statement: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
In 2004, Jones was called out from the academy, being elected bishop of the Kansas Annual Conference, which in 2012 was expanded to include Nebraska and re-christened the Great Plains Annual Conference.
Though Jones has less time for academic exchanges, he has not, he stresses, left behind his work in teaching and writing – charged as a bishop to “guard, defend, and teach the Christian faith,” his intellectual efforts have changed in scope, now focusing more on the practical and immediate topics he addresses in sermons, lectures and weekly columns.
As bishop, Jones has the authority to enforce institutional change in the churches under his charge. For instance, Jones has translated his explorations of evangelism into a series of initiatives designed to hold his clergy accountable for sharing the gospel with the lost and rootless in their communities.
Thinkers since Plato have explored the conflict between intellectual and institutional authority, but few leaders embody that tension more creatively than Bishop Jones, whose rise to church leadership demonstrates that institutions and ideas can temper and enrich one another: church offices can incarnate theological ideas in daily life, while those ideas can lend purpose and vitality to institutional vocation.