An Episcopal Area in the United Methodist Church (UMC) is a basic unit of this denomination. It is a region presided over by a resident bishop that is similar to a diocese in other Christian denominations. Each annual conference in the UMC is within a single episcopal area; some episcopal areas include more than one annual conference. Episcopal areas are found in the United States as well as internationally. In some cases, such as the Western Jurisdiction of the U.S. as well as some places internationally, an episcopal area covers a very large territory (several U.S. states or countries, respectively).
In the early histories of the denominations which formed the UMC, bishops were elected at-large, not having specific "residential responsibilities," but expected to exercise episcopal supervision throughout the denomination (including internationally), traveling throughout "the connection." Beginning with the General Conference of 1872, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) designated certain cities as proper locations for episcopal residences. The objective was to secure for each part of the Church more certain and constant episcopal supervision. Each bishop was therefore assigned to one of these residences by his colleagues.
With the merger of three Methodist denominations in 1939 to form The Methodist Church, jurisdictions were established, in which bishops were elected by jurisdictional conferences and assigned to episcopal areas within each jurisdiction (to itinerate within thereafter). Methodist bishops continued to serve as episcopal leaders of the entire denomination, but with specific residential and presidential duties to the annual conferences within their areas.
Also established in 1939 was the Central Jurisdiction, which provided for African American bishops to preside over African American annual conferences scattered throughout the U.S. These conferences were not necessarily geographically contiguous (as are the other five jurisdictions).
The Central Jurisdiction began to be dismantled in the 1960s, integrating African American bishops into the five geographical jurisdictions. By the 1968 merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, all bishops were assigned to these jurisdictions, and within them, each to one episcopal area.
One exception is the central conference system outside the U.S. These conferences also elect their own Bishops, often limiting them to terms (though most also provide for subsequent lifetime election, as in the U.S.). Nevertheless, these central conference bishops are also assigned to episcopal areas within each central conference. The bishops therein elected also become members of The Council of Bishops of the UMC